Larry McMurtry's 1966 novel The Last Picture Show is an outstanding evocation of life in small town America (set in the real life town of Thalia in Texas), focusing on the lives of lifelong friends and high school seniors, Sonny and Duane. Written in a deceptively simple prose style, McMurtry does a remarkable job, in what is a relatively short novel of around 220 pages, of conjuring up a poetic, but very tangible and convincing, vision of the intertwining lives of this 'off the beaten track' community.
The novel's tone engenders a range of emotions in the reader, from anger and despair to sympathy and sadness, as McMurtry's characters struggle to survive in a world where male machismo is the accepted norm (with frequent bouts of drinking and whoring) and where (even hints of) homosexuality will not to be tolerated. However, beneath the surface there lurks a more complex set of human emotions, of misplaced ambition, loneliness, sympathy for the disadvantaged, social divisions and yearning for the past. On the way, McMurtry constructs a brilliantly drawn set of characters, including enigmatic pool hall, cinema and café owner Sam The Lion, bigoted sports Coach Popper, ignored and frustrated wife Ruth Popper, centre of male attention, and girlfriend of both Sonny and Duane, Jacy Farrow, boozy and promiscuous Lois Farrow (mother of Jacy) and simple-minded street sweeper Billy. As Sonny and Duane come to realise that their exuberant days of chasing girls and boozing are coming to an end, so McMurtry's poignant tale also marks the end of an era for this tight-knit community and tragic circumstances lead to the closing of the picture house.
This book comes highly recommended, and, if you like McMurtry's subject matter and writing style I would highly recommend the novels of Richard Russo, in particular, Empire Falls and The Risk Pool (although all his novels are well worth reading).
Of course, McMurtry's novel was also made into an outstanding film, made in 1971, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, and starring Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges and Cybil Shepherd.