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BlogMarch-April, 2012
Football in American Lit: The Last Picture Show

"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).

--Joseph, the narrator of Saul Bellow's first novel, Dangling Man (1944)


More than twenty years before H. G. Bissinger introduced the world to small-town Texas football in Friday Night Lights (1990), Larry McMurtry nailed the scene in his third novel, The 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 over-documented 1960s.

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. The 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" feeling:

"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 alone" (1).
  • Two of Crowell's four touchdowns had been run over Sonny's guard position, but he felt quite calm about it all" (3).
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).)

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 health" (31).

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 is "silly."

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.

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