by Larry McMurtry
Although this iconic novel by Larry McMurtry is not about disability, it does feature a prominent character with a disability. I am always interested in how disability is treated in the various genres of literature.
In this fictional novel (although it’s apparently semi-autibiographical) set in a small town in 1950s Texas, Billy is an intellectually disabled teen. His mother, a “deaf-mute,” died in childbirth, and Billy was virtually abandoned by his father, so Sam the Lion, an older man who owns the town’s pool hall, movie theater, and cafe, and whose own three sons and wife are dead, takes Billy in.
Billy’s disability is never specified, except that it’s clear that he’s intellectually disabled. He is regularly referred to as an “idiot” (seriously, people, if you really think that the insult “idiot” is any different from “retard,” you need only go back about twenty or thirty years to see that it was the word used to describe what we now call “intellectually disabled”), and at one point, “returded.” I wondered throughout the book if he might have Down syndrome, only because it seemed that the fact that he was intellectually disabled was recognizable by sight alone. However, the term “Mongoloid,” the common word used to describe Down syndrome specifically in that time period, does not appear anywhere in the story, and in any case, McMurtry never specifies what Billy’s condition is.
What I found interesting is that Billy found a makeshift family in the townspeople. Most of the townspeople are fond and somewhat protective of him. At one point, some local boys take him to a prostitute to lose his virginity, and that was a disturbing in that it felt horribly like Billy was being exploited and mistreated, but for the most part, he is accepted by the town as one of their own, and he is treated with equal measures of deference and, yes, pity. It would have been almost a given during that particular era for a child like Billy to be institutionalized; the fact that he wasn’t, that he was taken in and cared for, was surprising to me.
The Last Picture Show is a book worth reading, for the story itself and for the disability angle. You can read my full review here.