Jim McConaughey and Rites of Passage for Matthew

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Greenlights" by Matthew McConaughey. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Who was Jim McConaughey? What was his relationship like with his son, Matthew McConaughey?

Matthew McConaughey’s father, Jim McConaughey, valued masculinity and rites of passage. One of the defining moments of Matthew’s life was when he passed one of Jim’s rites of passage, and they grew closer as a result.

Read more about Jim McConaughey below.

Jim McConaughey and Rites of Passage Into Manhood

Jim McConaughey valued rites of passage, and he saw that each of his boys received one. For example, when Mike was 22, Jim picked a physical fight and wouldn’t stop coming at him until Mike finally knocked him out with a 2 x 4. When Jim regained consciousness, he expressed heartfelt pride for his son and viewed him as an equal from then on.

Failing the Test

Matthew’s first chance at a rite of passage arrived during his senior year of high school, and it didn’t end well. One night he came home at midnight, having skipped out on the bill with a friend at the local Pizza Hut, and found Jim waiting up. Jim McConaughey had spoken by phone with the father of Matthew’s friend, and now he confronted Matthew and demanded to know if it was true that he had stolen a pizza. Shocked and flustered, Matthew denied it. 

He knew his father just wanted him to own up to it. In McConaughey family logic, the one thing worse than getting caught in some bit of misbehavior was lying about it. Jim himself had stolen a pizza or two in his lifetime, and Matthew knew that he only needed to admit the truth to his father, which would earn him some yelling and maybe a few lashes from a belt, but nothing more. In fact, it would earn him respect.

But instead of coming clean, for reasons he couldn’t fathom within himself, he doubled down on the lie. The result was predictable. Jim sprang at him and backhanded him across the face, knocking him down. Matthew panicked, cried, wet his pants, and crawled into a corner as Jim continued to rage at him.

Ever since that night, he has regretted his failure to fulfill his passage to manhood that night. He had always been more his mother’s son than his father’s, and that night was his first chance to become Jim’s son as well, to become a man. But he failed the test.

Passing the Test

Fortunately, Matthew’s chance came around again a year after he graduated from high school. He and his father stopped for a drink at a pool hall, and as they were leaving, the bouncer asked Jim if he had paid his bill. He put his hand on Jim’s chest to stop him, and Matthew, seeing another man put a hand on his father, exploded in fury. He leaped on the bouncer and beat him savagely. He was so enraged that Jim finally had to pull him off the man.

That night, Jim called all of his buddies and proudly announced what had happened. He told them they didn’t have to worry about Matthew anymore because Matthew was going to be alright. The youngest son had proved himself. From that night on, Matthew was no longer a child but one of the men. This passage to manhood was a greenlight.

Death of a Father

Five days into shooting his scenes in Dazed and Confused, Matthew received a call from his mother to inform him that his father had died. Jim had suffered a heart attack after making love to Kay. Matthew left Austin and drove back to Houston for an Irish wake.

As he grappled with the inevitability of this loss, he began to realize that this was his most important rite of passage to manhood. The impact of Jim’s death filled him with a sense of adult responsibility and increased involvement in his own life. Formerly, he had always been playing at life to some extent, like a child. Now it was time to really live it as a man, to be less impressed with himself and more involved in his future.

Four days after Jim’s wake, Matthew returned to finish his work on Dazed and Confused. When he got there, Linklater gave him some dialogue in a scene where Wooderson wasn’t originally supposed to speak. Wooderson’s advice to another character in that scene to just “keep livin.” was Matthew’s own creation. He based it on what he told Linklater before shooting: that he felt he could keep Jim McConaughey’s spirit alive forever by living as Jim had taught his sons to do.

Jim McConaughey and Rites of Passage for Matthew

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Matthew McConaughey's "Greenlights" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full Greenlights summary:

  • How "greenlights" help you confirm if you're on the right path
  • How McConaughey switched college choices because of family finances
  • Why family is at the center of everything for McConaughey, no matter what's happening in his career

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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