"Today, the code of the athlete, of the tough boy --
an American inheritance, I believe, from the English
gentleman -- that curious mixture of striving,
asceticism, and rigor, the origins of which some
trace back to Alexander the Great -- is stronger
than ever. Do you have feelings? There are correct
and incorrect ways of indicating them. Do you have
an inner life? It is nobody's business but your own.
Do you have emotions? Strangle them" (1).
American Lit: The
Last Picture Show
--Joseph, the narrator of Saul Bellow's first novel,
More than twenty years before H. G. Bissinger
introduced the world to small-town Texas football in
Night Lights (1990), Larry
McMurtry nailed the scene in his third novel,
Last Picture Show (1966). The novel
takes place in 1951, and I will argue till I die
that no story has done a better job of depicting
American life between World War II and the utterly
One development in this in-between era changed
everything: television. McMurtry captures this
cultural transformation with his masterful title and
parable-like tale of two best friends -- Sonny and
Duane -- in the fictional town of Thalia. "It's kid
baseball in the summer and school in the winter,"
says Thalia's theater owner, Old Lady Mosey,
explaining why she must shut down the movie house.
"Television all the time. Nobody wants to come to
shows anymore" (283). This sad sense of closing
pervades the entire novel, especially when Sam the
Lion -- owner of the pool hall and Sonny's role
model -- passes away.
Another development in this era was the rise of
college educations -- and with it, the inchoate
notion that growing up and striving for conventional
success means leaving your hometown by age eighteen.
Catcher in the Rye (1951) touches on
this, but it's really a subject for which American
teens, seeking artistic solace, have turned to
British popular music: Consider Pink Floyd's "Time"
(1973) or The Who's "I'm
One" (also 1973).
In The Last
Picture Show, McMurtry uses football to
illustrate this "one year too many in my hometown"
"He kept wishing he was out on the field playing.
Running the chain, measuring first downs, that was
nothing: he might have been invisible to everyone
but the referees. He was an ex-student -- nothing.
...standing on the sidelines, holding the chain, he
felt like he wasn't even in town -- he felt like he
wasn't anywhere" (285).
The words repeated in this passage are "nothing" and
"chain." That these emotions belong to Sonny
Crawford is telling, because Sonny is hardly a
football fanatic. In fact, on the novel's opening
pages, we learn:
- "The night before Sonny had played his last
game of football for Thalia High School, but it
wasn't that that made him feel so strange and
Not one year later, holding the chain on the
sideline, Sonny's feelings have changed. He has come
a long way from the boy who was indifferent to his
on-field performance, whose main joy as a football
player was not the thrill of victory but the vanity
of varsity status. (His jock cockiness is on full
display during his breakup with Charlene Duggs: "He
was amazed that breaking up with her had been so
easy: all he felt was a strong sense of relief at
having his football jacket back" (29).)
- Two of Crowell's four touchdowns had been run
over Sonny's guard position, but he felt quite
calm about it all" (3).
Later, we glimpse a darker side of high school
football and the recklessness that can surround it:
"Frank Crawford was not the town's only drug addict,
but he was the one with the best excuse: he had been
high-school principal in Thalia, until his car
wreck. One night, he was coming home from a high
school football game and sideswiped a cattle truck.
Sonny's mother was killed and Frank was injured so
badly that six operations failed to restore him to
Here we see why Sonny has latched on to Sam the Lion
as a role model. Yet when Sam dies, Sonny does not
cry at the funeral. He only finds the bravery to cry
when he is away from the football limelight. And
even then, he is ashamed of his tears:
"The boys were all crowded around the bus, hugging
and kissing the girls who met them on the field.
Sonny put the chain with the rest of the equipment
and walked back through the crowd to his pickup,
feeling like he had been completely erased. People
he had known all his life were all around him, but
they simply didn't see him. He was out of school.
"...the poolhall was dark and empty. Sonny began to
cry. Every minute or two he would think how silly it
was and would stop for a little while, but he
couldn't stop completely. He was out and could never
get back in" (286).
At this point, Sonny is dealing with a dead mother,
a deadbeat father, the death of a surrogate father,
the end of his football days, the loss of a
community, and getting dumped by Jacy Farrow. But
for all that, Sonny still believes that his crying
Note how McMurtry uses the adverb "completely" twice
in this section. From his typewriter -- where
adverbs seldom roam -- that is a statement. It is a
statement about being irrevocably erased from your
community. It is a statement about being unable to
stop your tears. And it is a statement about the
sadness of the boyhood/manhood values which frown on
crying, even under tragic circumstances.
Ilan Mochari is the author of the novel Zinsky
the Obscure (Fomite Press, 2012).
His short stories have appeared or are
forthcoming in Keyhole,
Stymie, Ruthie's Club and
Oysters & Chocolate. In
2009, he received a Literature Artist Fellowship
grant from the Somerville Arts Council. He is a
former staff writer for Inc,
and he has also written for Fortune
Small Business and CFO.
He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.