Thalia Novels of Larry McMurtry

Thalia, Texas is a fictional town, the setting for five novels by Larry McMurtry:

  • The Last Picture Show (1966)
  • Texasville (1987)
  • Duane’s Depressed (1999)
  • When the Light Goes (2007)
  • Rhino Ranch (2009)

I read all five of these books in the last six weeks, and the threads that weave them together are Thalia and Duane Moore, so it’s essentially the story of one man and his small town over fifty years since he graduated high school.  (My guess in 1952.)

I first read The Last Picture Show after seeing the movie when it came out in 1971 and this led me to be a life-long Larry McMurtry fan, but not a consistent one.  I read a handful of his early books during 1971-1975, then after seeing the Lonesome Dove mini-series on TV read most of McMurtry western novels in the late 80s and early 90s, then in the early double-ought’s, I read the Berrybender books, and final this summer I came back and caught up with the Thalia novels.

The Thalia novels are my favorites because I find so much that resonates with my own life.

The original story in this unintentional series, The Last Picture Show, was “lovingly dedicated to my home town,” by McMurtry, who was born in Archer City, Texas. I assume that’s the model for Thalia.  Thalia, from Greek mythology, was the Muse of comedy, and one of the three Graces.  Some people do see these stories as essentially comic, but any comedy is vastly overshadowed by loneliness, sexual frustration, sadness, restless boredom, depression and death.

I’d like to think The Last Picture Show is autobiographical, the kind of a novel that a young writer would write to describe how they grew up.  It’s about two high school best friends, Sonny Crawford and Duane Moore set in the early 1950s, during the Korean War.  It was made into a beautiful film by Peter Bogdanovich in 1971, starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Cybil Shepherd.  The Last Picture Show is Sonny Crawford’s story, but Duane and Sonny share a tragic love for the fickle Jacy Farrow.  The odd thing about this novel is how the women are much stronger then the Texas men.

For some reason, starting with Texasville, the story shifted to Duane, and Sonny was marginalized as a character.  Because Texasville was also made into a film in 1990, again by Bogdanovich, I wonder if McMurtry wrote it for the Duane because Jeff Bridges was then a much bigger star.  All the books after The Last Picture Show focus on Duane Moore, and it’s Jeff Bridges who I picture in my mind as Duane for all five books.

Over the five books, two of which were made into films, I got to love many characters, and in the course of the series they all die.  Most of the deaths, like death in life, were surprises, and some were gut wrenching to me as the reader.

The peak of the whole series is Duane’s Depressed, when Duane is 62.  Like The Last Picture Show, I hope Duane’s Depressed has more of McMurtry in it because its emotions are more real.

The last two novels, When the Light Goes and Rhino Ranch, are slight, and follow many drifting years for Duane.  They are more intentionally comic, if not farcical.  The chapters become shorter and shorter until they are tiny scenes in Duane’s life, but they cover Duane’s late sixties and early seventies, a time of little activity in a man’s life, although those books should have been longer and more philosophical.

One thing I found amazing is how much America changes in these books.  We start out in Thalia, around 1951, the year I was born.  There are no cell phones, no computers, no Internet, no computer games, etc.  They do have television, but most people seem to ignore it.  Sonny and Duane play football for a school that seldom sees any wins, and they both dream of scoring with Jacy, their high school beauty queen.  Both have jobs, and Sonny has a mentor, Sam the Lion, plus Sonny has an affair with the high school coach’s wife.  But nothing I can say about the story conveys the full cast of vivid characters and all of their lonely lives.  You have to immerse yourself in the novel for that.  I’ve talk to many people who found it depressing, but I found the story uplifting.

Texasville jumps ahead in Duane’s life to his forties, after he’s married Karla, has four kids and a couple grandchildren.  He’s twelve million dollars in debt during a bust cycle of oil prices.  Jacy Farrow comes home at the same time Duane and Karla are having marriage problems, but Jacy steals Karla, his kids, his grandchildren, and even his dog from Duane.  Duane fails to communicate with his family even though he loves them.  Texasville is a riot of crazy characters, and Duane’s four children are every parent’s complete set of parenthood nightmares.

Texasville is about Duane’s failure to communicate with women.  His wife and several girlfriends read him like a book, knowing his every move, emotion and desire, but he is clueless, indecisive and the only words he can find for each women are the exact words that piss them off.

Evidently Duane never catches up with the women because in Duane’s Depressed, when he’s 62, walks away from his family.  Literally.  He parks his pickup, hides the keys, and walks away from a house with a wife, a cook, four children and nine grandchildren.  Duane is not educated enough to know who Thoreau was, or to know about Walden’s Pond, but he goes off to live in a small cabin.  Some people do point out he’s choosing to live a Thoreau like existence and he eventually finds a copy of the book, but he only reads a few lines about living deliberately.  Which he does.

Duane’s Depressed is about finding peace living alone, and Duane goes to a psychologist.  This is my favorite of the five books.  I’ll turn 59 in a few months, and that feels very close to 62.  McMurtry was just a little bit older than that when he wrote the novel, so I consider it my tour guide for my sixties.  Even though I write about almost anything I want in my blog there are topics I’m afraid to talk about.  Some of those topics are ones that Honor Carmichael gets Duane to discover.

I wished Larry McMurtry had written other books for this series.  I’d like at least one more book, if not two, from Sonny Crawford’s point of view.  Jacy deserves a book too, and I think Karla deserves three.  Ruth Popper definitely deserves a book.  And Jenny Marlow too.  And Lois Farrow.

JWH – 8/9/10

12 Responses

  1. [...] man my age coming to grips with getting older.  Duane’s Depressed is third of Larry McMurtry Thalia novels, with the first being the beautiful The Last Picture [...]

  2. I love Duane’s Depressed. I’ll be 62 in June, so hope to read it again this year. I mostly agree with you about how the series plays out. I never got around to reading Rhino Ranch because When the Light Goes was so slight and I figured more folks would be leaving the scene, but I suppose I should. I really like McM’s middle period not western novels: Cadillac Jack, Somebody’s Darling, and Desert Rose. All great contemporary novels. But it is Duane that speaks directly to me. Oh, I also liked All My Friends are Going to Be Strangers, and the novel after it, Terms of Endearment and the final book from that thread, The Evening Star. I loved the old lady in that.

    I do like most of the westerns. There’s a lot of bittersweetness running through them. I liked the Berrybender saga okay. Much good stuff. I always tell folks that McM is my favorite american novelist and that is still true. Thanks for the nice writeup. Good stuff.

  3. I have loved the work or Larry McMurty for years and am reading his novels and series of novels . the Lonesome Dove is his masterpiece, but the series about Thalia come close. I am reading Duane’s Depressed and then Rino Ranch…..and did think that When the Light Went on was a small, masterful book that worked for me–I have five years on Duane.
    Terms ofEndearment works but he pushes things in Evening Star. Stand-alone novels such are a mixed bag The Billy the Kid book works as do one or two of the series of the British family on the frontier. One can spend years working through his novels.His memoir worked for me and I do enjoy his articles in the NYRB. Finally his co-written sceen play for Brokeback Mountain was wonderful and Ang Lee and his actors turned it into a revolutionary movie.
    Reading McMurty has made my life richer as has my reading of Phillip Roth and John Updike, Richard Ford and most recently the author of Amy and Isabelle, Elisabeth Staut……

    I write works history related to Taiwan and China and they well regarded, but envy and admire the men and women I have mentioned who are masters of “the sentence” as Ford might say. McMurty is is high on my list of masters.

  4. Your comment about people finding these books depressing while you find them uplifting resonates completely. These are uplifting stories about dealing with the s**t of ordinary life through the late 50′s into a vague future. The Lonesome Dove series is essentially the same observations about the 1870s onwards.
    I’m in the middle (Nov 2013) of a love affair with the music of “Summer Camp” who created a fictional town and time like Thalia – reading the series in an out-of-order fashion just resonates with their stories of depression, fighting and despair. I can’t help but think of Larry McMurtrys’ books and Summer Camps’ music in the same terms as a Middle Ages Breugel painting depicting the despair and hardships of all these ages.
    In a technologically dominated world it’s so refreshing to revisit the hardships we have endured as a species and therefore understand how lucky we are. That’s the positivity. Anyone who finds this material depressing is in denial of self-awareness, Read some gossip magazine instead…

  5. I saw The LAst Picture Show in theaters when it came out and I was in high school. I might have used a fake idea to sneak into it. Since then, McMurtry and Duane have been a part of my life. I’m now rereading t series, this time on my Kindle and thanks to your blog post, I discovered #4 & 5. I started them in film, I. have a shelf of 30ish tattered paperbacks (many bought used which Duane & Larry would appreciate . I listened to a dozen or on cassette books on tape back when I did hours each day in a car. Now on the Kindle. I wish I hadn’t written your review, wonderfully written, PS the only fan letter I’ve written in my life was to Mr. McMurtry. I enjoyed writing it.

    • I was just two years out of high school in 1971. It’s amazing how real Duane has become over the years. I wish McMurtry had written some novels about Sonny though. I’m sure I’ll reread the Thalia novels all again too.

  6. I just finished the series. It was not my first time through it. James, your review is great. Also, being able to Google and find a review and comments on this series, while no one that I personally know has read them, is reminding me how cool the internet is.

  7. I saw The Last Picture Show in theaters when it first came out. Since I was in high school and the movie was rated R, I must have used a fake idea to sneak into it. Since then, McMurtry and Duane have been a part of my life. I’m now rereading the series and I thought to Google reviews of it. Thanks to your post, I discovered books #4 & #5.

    I’ve followed their story across many media and decades. As I mentioned, I first met Duane as a character in the movie. Later, I bought the first two books and read them. I’ve seen the Texasville film. I’ve rented the original film as a cassette, as a DVD, and as a download.

    I have a shelf of 30 some tattered McMurtry paperbacks, many bought used, which Duane would appreciate. I listened in the early 90s to a dozen or so McMurtry books on cassette tapes back when I did hours each day in a car. Now, I’m reading the whole set of five on the Kindle app on my iPad..

    Your review spoke to me. I wish that I could write that well.

    PS The only fan letter that I’ve written was to Mr. McMurtry. I enjoyed writing it.
    PPS This is a rewrite of a too-hastily written earlier comment. Feel free to delete the original. Thanks.

  8. I’ve never been a movie buff. But somewhere along the line ca. 2005 I found the Last Picture Show DVD. That was concurrent with daughters living in Texas, and so as I leisurely drove fro Colroado to Texas, I dabbled in rural Texas.

    In 2007 I detoured and visited Archer City. The old theater is still there, I saw Sonny and Duane returning from Mexico in the old Chevy pickup only to learn that Sam the Lion had died. Checking in with the local sorta Chamber of Commerce, they actually hadn’t a clue about the movie or the book.

    IIRC. TLPS is rated by the Smithonian as one of the most important movies of the last century.

    From that visit, I read the book and the other books. Do NOT forget, Horseman, Pass By. This books is the foundation for the famous Hud movie, and is the first mention of Thalia.

    I’ve read all of the Duane books, and am now rereading them in sequence. As a 67 year old man, I understand his journey, to the extent that’s possible.

    As I go through these books, I can only wonder what Mr. McMurtry’s own life/sexual story is.

    The bottom line is the Larry McMurtry is an American creative spirit without equal.

    BTW, he’s closed down his two book stores in Archer City. For photo of my visit, http://www.pbase.com/pzo/archer_city_thalia_texas

    • Thanks for posting this. Watching Duane age over the years in the Thalia novels is a wonderful story, and one I relate. I’m sorry McMurtry closed down his bookstores. I had hoped to visit them someday. Your pictures made the store look very clean and orderly, unlike most used bookstores I know.

  9. How about “Leaving Cheyenne”?

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