This was another book I got for a dollar at the University Women's Book Sale. I had read it years ago and have watched the movie several times. Larry McMurtry is one of my favorite authors; he is also the author of my favorite American novel, the sprawling myth of the American West Lonesome Dove.
I always had some issues with the Peter Bogdanovich's movie even though it is a great movie, one of the best. I never liked the choice of Cloris Leachman as Ruth Popper, even though she won an Academy Award for her role as the mousy wife of the brutally narcissistic Coach Popper. My wife was a high school coach's wife, and while I was never particularly brutal, I was certainly narcissistic enough to cause her some grief. Anyways, I didn't think Leachman was pretty enough for the role. Ruth Popper was meant to be a trampled flower. I don't think Leachman played her with enough life left in her to attract a boy like Sonny.
I also felt that the movie took it way too easy on Coach Popper. The moviegoer couldn't get inside his head to hear those interior monologues that makes him out as a monster. In a sense, it is his story that is being told. McMurtry was onto this toxic masculinity stuff a long time ago. Coach Popper is a monster who cares only about one person, his selfish, fat-assed self. It doesn't matter who he ruins or destroys, as long as he is left alone enough to serve as a role model to Thalia's young men.
Yes, I said role model. Sometimes they don't have to be good people. We can just as easily decide to be not like someone as be like them. I have a belief that McMurtry read Fred Gipson's classic Old Yeller growing up. I would bet on it. The juxtaposition of Coach Popper's character, or lack thereof, up against that of Sam the Lion looks to be borrowed from Gipson placing the slobbering, selfish Bud Seary up against the selfless, polite Burn Sanderson.
I always taught that the Gipson placed them side by side like that to show young Travis Coates how he should act. Gipson gives him a choice, behave like Searcy and be universally loathed and avoided, or behave like Sanderson and become loved, respected, and admired.
There is also a deeper, more hidden message in all of this juxtaposing. In Sam the Lion's case it is how much it hurts sometimes to be good. That's the same message of Christ in fact. We live in an age where Happy Meals and ice cold Coca Colas are said to be the cure for all our ills, and that happiness is what we seek on this earth and basically anything goes in our pursuit of it.
Nothing can be further from the truth. Ronald McDonald, in essence, is the Antichrist and Coke is his beverage of choice. Maybe he's not the real one, maybe he's just a cousin, or maybe he's only a piece of him, but the idea that happiness is truth and the real reason for being is as bogus as store bought homemade biscuits.
Yet, the character I feel the most empathy for is not Ruth Popper as she still has a tiny sliver of hope, a glimmer that keeps her afloat. Coach Popper is the lost soul here, McMurtry reveals that Coach's voice is an echo coming out of the Pit, a hell he arrived at without even knowing there were choices.
All he ever wanted to do was be the Marlboro Man. It is an interesting note that McMurtry never says that the anecdote to Toxic Masculinity is wearing skinny jeans and buns on top your head or going along with the crowd no matter how stupid they fucking are. He makes it perfectly clear that real men tear off pieces of themselves and give up their dreams of glory to feed and bind the wounds of others.
Salvation is not without scars. That line comes from one of my daughter's songs. (I am extremely proud that she was wise enough to write it.) Sam the Lion is the true role model in that he gave up his own chances at happiness to try to make the world a better place to live. He was kind, understanding, and generous to a fault.
McMurtry has used this all suffering hero many times, most memorably in Captain Call of Lonesome Dove. But there's also bittersweet chastisement involved.
In this book, Sonny, soiled but still innocent, returns to Ruth Potter, seeking motherly solace as much as sex, knowing full well that their relationship will never end well; it was in fact incestuous. To become his true self, he needed to man the fuck up and to go help save Jacy from her own destructive nature. The sins of Sam's self sacrifice, yes, there is such a thing, and his failure to help Jaci's mother Lois avoid her fate are revisited upon Sam.
Men are too often tied to the ground where they fell out their mother's womb, and the umbilical cord only stretches to the city limits sign. Sam needed to have left Texas and taken Lois with him. Sonny needed to drive faster and further when he had the chance but stopped in hope of sleeping with her and staking his claim instead of saving her from her destiny. Jacy tried to tell him as much.
In Lonesome Dove, Captain Call would never acknowledge that he fathered a son from a whore. It is one of the most compelling situations in all of literature. Men are taught that we have to be perfect, but all we really need to learn is that it is our scars that make us men. It is the holes in the palms of our hand, and not our perfections that really matter.
A sign of a great book is that there are other stories involved, little side streets off the main road that are as every bit as interesting as the story being told. McMurtry is a master of positioning these stories, and alluding to their existence in the thoughts, behaviors, and dialogue of his characters.