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C H A R L E S D. PEAVY University of Houston Larry McMurtry and Black Humor: A Note on The Last Picture Show The meteoric success of the young Texas writer, Larry Mc­ Murtry, has not gone unnoticed. The Steck-Vaughn Company of Austin has included him in their series of pamphlets on South­ western writers along with such well established writers as A. B. Guthrie, Jr., Katherine Anne Porter, and J. Frank Dobie. Mc­ Murtry published not only three novels before his thirtieth birthday but also a score of short stories and brilliantly incisive essays. The most notable thing about McMurtry, however, is the innovations he has made in the genre of the Western novel. I have investigated his achievement in the capturing of the adolescent mind and the freeing of the type from stereotyped approaches and concepts in a previous study. The object of this article is to indicate how strik­ ingly different McMurtry’s third novel, The Last Picture Show (1966), is from his first two, Horseman, Pass By (1961) and Leaving Cheyenne (1962). The first two novels were written with sym­ pathy, even love, for the central characters. Humor is noticeably absent from Horseman, Pass By, and although McMurtry uses much humor in Leaving Cheyenne, particularly in the dialogues between Johnny McCloud and Gideon Fry in the final section of the novel, the humor is in the traditional joshing vein of Southwestern humor. In The Last Picture Show, however, a new type of humor emerges, one which most assuredly places McMurtry in the company of the current crop of “black humorists.”1 A steady stream of irony, 2For an excellent anthology of black humorists, see Bruce Jay Friedman’s Black Humor, Bantam, 1965. 224 Western American Literature even bitterness, persists throughout the book, from its dedication (“lovingly dedicated to my home town”) to its final chapter. Book Week reviewed The Last Picture Show as “a retreat into the litera­ ture of nostalgia,” “a kind of Huckleberry Finn after the fall.” There is certainly nothing nostalgic about this novel—when I asked McMurtry about the book’s dedication he told me that it was deliberately ambiguous but that “of course it was ironic.” Even the name of the town, Thalia, which means “paradise,” is ironic. The ironic mood of the book is underscored by McMurtry’s use of black humor, as in the names of some of the characters. For example, Sonny’s girl, who allows him to fondle her breasts (but nothing else), is named Charlene Duggs, and Sonny drives a truck for Frank Fartley, the man who operates a bottled gas works. McMurtry’s most notable use of black humor, however, is in his description of small town sexuality, particularly as it is practiced by Thalia’s adolescents. Charlene Duggs kisses “convulsively,” as if she has “just swallowed a golf ball and is trying to force it back up” (p. 13). Sonny soon tires of fondling Charlene’s breast (“it might have been an apple someone had given him just when he was least hungry”) and is disconcerted because “in Thalia it was generally agreed that the one thing that was never boring was feeling a girl’s breasts.” He tries moving his hand downward (“grasping for straws”) , but it is held at navel level by Charlene, who says coldly . . you ain’t good lookin’ enough. You ain’t even got a ducktail. Why should I let you fiddle around and get me pregnant” (pp. 22-23)? The same black humor is evident in McMurtry’s discussion of the prevalence of bestiality among the farm boys (who thought “only dandies restricted themselves to cows and heifers”), as well as in his account of the same practice among the boys in town (p. 103) : Many of the town kids were also versatile and resourceful— the only difficulty was that they had access to a smaller and less varied animal population. Even so, one spindly sophomore whose father sold insurance had once been surprised in ecstatic union with a roan cocker spaniel, and a degraded youth from the north side of town got so desperate one day that he crawled into a neighbor’s pig pen...


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