For many years, when friends moved here, I’d visit Half-Price Books for a couple of welcome-to-Texas gifts. This was in the Ice Age, before bookfinder.com, so like some bearskinned hunter-gatherer, I’d rummage for old copies of Larry McMurtry’s In a Narrow Grave or Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. The two essay collections are reflective, historically-informed and entertainingly jaundiced; they’re field guides to the strange history, peoples and customs hereabouts.
Although Grave came out in 1968, many of its insights still have a serrated edge: “Most of what I have said about Houston’s pretensions could simply be repeated for Dallas. Houston is open, an opportunist’s delight. Dallas is cleaner than Houston; cleaner because more tightly controlled.”
Still, it’s undeniable some observations in Grave have been bulldozed into irrelevance by a half-century of colossal urbanization, immigration and whatever ‘Texas chic’ is this year. But then in 1999, in Walter Benjamin, at the age of 60, McMurtry felt the need for a cultural and autobiographical summing up, a look around the landscape and history that had been his subjects (some might say targets) for so long: “In the West, lifting up one’s eyes to the heavens can be a wise thing, for much of the land is ugly. The beauty of the sky is redemptive; its beauty prompts us to forgive the land its cruelty.”
One reason many such declarations still stand is that McMurtry was often measuring Texas Present against Texas Past and Texas Myth. He’d been an unhappy child of cattle ranchers, and he used that toehold in pioneer Texas history to evaluate where we were and how we got here.
That skeptical look back is a marked difference with Lawrence Wright’s new assessment, God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State – which is a heartfelt but uneasy look forward.
The Austin-based journalist and screenwriter hikes and bikes along some of the same trails McMurtry did: Austin, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio. Wright does include a fair amount of history in his account of our merry, petrol-pumping Eden. But what motivates God Save Texas is Wright’s fear that Texas has been the harbinger for – too late! – what’s already taken over the rest of the country: political extremism and paralysis, a roaring nationalism and the hatred of immigrants, a rollback of federal oversight on the environment, banking, racial equality, abortion rights – and so on.
At the same time, many pundits have posited California – environmentally-sensitive, gender-neutral, Silicon-Valleyed and celebrity-cultured California – as the opposite model for the America we supposedly want to be. In this wrestling match, Wright worries that Texas plays the posturing bully. We’re arrogant and fearful, certain we’re surrounded by enemies. This justifies both Texas lashing out and Texas crowing over any victory, real or imagined: an open carry law for gun-owners, rejected federal spending for expanded medical care, healthy corporate growth with a low-tax state government.
Wright sketches in this red state v. blue state analysis, but his basic argument is that it’s too simple and too harsh on Texas. He finds plenty to love and admire in our state. And it’s not just the usual, awe-inspiring landscapes like Big Bend. Or Willie Nelson. As he heads around the state, Wright hopes to find Texans who aren’t the loud, intolerant clichés his Eastern friends fear.
Wright grew up in Dallas – and wrote about it (In the New World from 1988). He contemplates the tragedies tied up with political violence that have scarred the city (JFK and the July 7th police massacre). But Dallas takes some well-deserved hits. Income inequality is lower here than in other big cities, for example, but when income inequality is connected to race, the disparity becomes a canyon. Around the country, Wright notes, the average number of African-Americans among the homeless is 40 percent. In Dallas, it’s nearly two-thirds.
Despite Wright’s Big D credentials, God Save Texas is a thoroughly Austin-eyed view of the state. The sizable center of the book concerns insider politics, Texas-grown presidents and the state legislature (topics McMurtry mostly just snorted at). Wright confesses he found George Bush likable – a case of what’s been called ‘Bush Nostalgia’ in the Age of Trump – given that Bush, as Texas governor, at least attempted to lead from the middle. Wright repeatedly wishes that, as president, Bush had never invaded Iraq and would like to believe that, otherwise, he’d have been a decent leader (‘otherwise’ in this instance means ‘not fully addressing whatever Bush’s responsibility was for the near-collapse of the economy’).
Where Wright really gets into his Diogenes-like search for a Middle-Ground Texan is his backstage account of the recent legislative session in Austin. In this drama, Speaker of the House Joe Straus played the Last, Sensible, Business-Minded Republican, one who mostly out-foxed Lt. Governor Dan Patrick’s angry social conservatives demanding crackdowns on the border, abortion and all our many transgender bathrooms.
Then Straus promptly announced he wouldn’t seek re-election.
So we remain a state run by a government that leans seriously more rightward than its population does (Wendy Davis: “Texas is not a red state. It’s a non-voting blue state”). Wright sees our refusals to properly fund education and healthcare as seriously retrograde – especially for a state, he argues, that was born optimistic and future-oriented. We Texans seem to be a hearty bunch of can-do-ers who haven’t figured out that an independent-minded, tech-savvy state won’t be built by poorly-educated serfs who can’t afford to see a doctor.
As for Texans not being cultural Barbarians on the Brazos, Wright spends time doing quick drive-bys on Texas high art. Look, there’s the Kimbell and the de Menil museums. Cormac McCarthy and John Graves are great. Wasn’t artist Donald Judd a bit of a cranky purist with all his minimalist boxes parked around Marfa?
Wright spends far more time on music and movies (Austin . . . again). Which, frankly, he probably should. If I can crib a line from poet Robert Pinsky, which he used about American culture in general: Texas’ lasting influences lie not in our attempts to ape Europe’s aristocrats. They lie in our bastardized arts and bad habits. All honor to the Horton Footes, Vernon Fishers and Sandra Cisneros-es of the state, but Texas’ unique contributions are in Western swing, Texas blues, Tejano and T-Bone Walker’s guitar sound. We invented the frozen margarita and the silicone breast implant. We helped launch the regional theater movement (Margo Jones in Dallas, Nina Vance in Houston) and the Dirty South in hip-hop. The disreputable genre of the low-cost, high-shock, indie horror flick took off because of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This is the state where nachos and the ATM were born.
Wright would call such statements “Level III” thinking. That is, they’re a re-appreciation of the down-market, homegrown “Level I” culture that people often start with and learn to escape or scorn. In between is “Level II” thinking — which is your standard, cultural insecurity and snobbery. For all its faults, Level II has a lot going for it. It did bring us that considerable art collection in Jerry Jones’ football palace. And it put a Michelangelo in the Kimbell.
The not-so-simple fact is that Texas culture is what it is because of the state’s crossroads location, its size and its history. Texas is an ongoing collision of Hispanic traditions, swaggering pirate capitalism, a mythic cowboy image of resilience and honor – plus funky African-American ways. For better and worse, our home state is basically America with the brake cables cut.
So. Never a dull moment around here. Actually, fifty years ago, McMurtry feared precisely that: Texas was becoming dull. He thought Texas was akin to the younger sibling of California, not its rival but the punk kid brother always trying too hard. But then, McMurtry was writing when the state’s population was still rural though already escaping to the Big Cities. What once distinguished us – all those longhorns and oil wildcatters – has led mostly to copycat skyscrapers and more freeway exits. We’ve become a suburban industrial park like everywhere else. Something McMurtry certainly doesn’t relish.
Wright’s worldview, on the other hand, is thoroughly post-suburban. He’s trying to find what still distinguishes us – if anything. And is it . . . admirable? He does encounter decent folks, talented artists, wised-up activists. In effect, the questions Wright contemplates are: What’s still Texas – and is it worth it?
Of course it is, you’ll say. But remember, one thing that certainly distinguished Texas is that it’s a state born out of its own fight for liberty – but it was a fight led by slaveowners, just like America’s was. That marks a place, and a people.
Granted, it’s certainly not fair to compare McMurty and Wright. For his part, McMurtry is a superb essayist but definitely not a reporter. He barely interviewed anyone. With God Save Texas, Wright wants to be a contemplative essayist, but he basically remains what he’s mostly been: an exceptional journalist. That was the case with both The Looming Tower, his remarkable, Pulitzer Prize-winning history of al-Qaeda, and his exposé Going Clear, which took on the deep-pocketed Church of Scientology. Even today, Google Wright’s name, and the first thing to come up is an attack ad paid for by Scientologists. That’s a journalist’s badge of honor.
In 1980, Wright moved to Austin to write for Texas Monthly – which is not long after I arrived in town. That sentence, by the way, is a very Wrightian entrance to a subject. He often name-drops a famous friend or a personal accolade to illustrate some cultural shift or life change. In God Save Texas, we learn that Wright’s Austin neighbor was once director Terrence Malick (Tree of Life). Another was Matthew McConaughey. With proper reverence, Wright has held Trigger, Willie Nelson’s legendary guitar. His visit to Houston, it just so happens, was prompted by the Alley Theatre’s premiere of his new play (it was crippled by Hurricane Harvey, a disaster that prompts some of his book’s most moving passages about the heroic decency of ordinary Texans). When Wright toured Lubbock, his guide was the great Joe Ely. By this point in the book, you’re liable to think, Of course it was. Inevitably, perhaps, they did not discuss the serious decline of the Ogalala Aquifer and its impact on the Texas cotton crop. They discussed Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley.
Because that’s what I’d want to chat about with Joe Ely, too.
In his acknowledgements, Wright says this book is the result of New Yorker editor David Remnick asking him to “explain Texas.” Actually, Wright spends quite some time explaining himself as well. There are musings like the following, as he drives back to Austin one evening: “I thought about how unintentional most of life is. Part of me had always wanted to leave Texas, but I had never actually gone. Sometimes we are summoned by work or romance to move to another existence and for me those moments when there is no reasonable alternative to departure have always been joyful, full of a sense of adventure and reinvention. . . . Now here I was, on a darkening highway in Texas, with so much more road behind me than what lay before.”
In short, God Save Texas is a memoir. Texas became a mirror for self-reflection – as it often does. Using your late-in-life regrets to reconsider your country, your state, your art, the entire cosmos: This is a tradition as old as Dante finding himself lost in a dark woods as he enters the Inferno. Or Henry Adams contemplating what kind of future our 18th-century democracy might have after modern, engineered power was done with it.
With such ponderings, it’s the journey, as the saying goes, not the destination that counts. Which is one way of pointing out – no surprise – Wright never finally ‘explains’ Texas. Who could? Robert Caro is spending five volumes just on Lyndon Johnson. There’s one Texan whose greatness and pettiness, crudeness and shrewdness, probably embody the state better than anyone. JFK had us dreaming of equal voting rights and going to the moon. LBJ delivered both. He also got us stuck in Vietnam.
But Wright does deliver something of an apologia pro vita sua. His own life, he fears, has been “provincial” in many ways. “I’ve always chosen to remain a step away from the center of the action. . . . the bustle of Manhattan or the corridors of power in Washington or the bungalows of Hollywood studios. . . . I have been close enough to those beguiling alternative lives to drink in the perfume of temptation. And yet, some maybe cowardly instinct whispered to me that if I accepted the offer to live elsewhere, I would be someone other than myself. My life might have been larger, but it would have been counterfeit.
I would not be home.”
Many authors – many people – lack perspective on their own achievements in life. Mark Twain believed his masterpiece was his lifeless biography of Joan of Arc, not Huckleberry Finn.
But – provincial?
Consider: Wright is a staff writer for The New Yorker. He’s a New York Times best-selling author. He won a Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower, re-worked it into a documentary and re-worked it again as a TV mini-series. He won a National Book Critics Circle Award for Going Clear and an Emmy for the TV version. He’s a Hollywood screenwriter-producer. He’s repeatedly adapted his journalism into one-man shows for himself to star in on stage. The Times has taken to calling him a ‘writer-performer.’
This is not exactly a trailer-park existence. Would a Manhattan residence have conferred him greater significance? I know some New Yorkers whose addresses don’t exactly elevate their particular lives. God Save Texas itself was excerpted in the ‘TLS,’ the Times Literary Supplement, one of the world’s leading reviews. The London publication has an unconventional new editor, but it’s still not one normally given to excerpting books about the Texas origins of fracking or whoever it is that’s buried near Ann Richards.
So – imagine this for most any other non-fiction writer in Texas: Even literary London takes notice of Wright’s jottings.
God Save Texas is a sincere, helpful and knowledgeable guide to the state (though you might be startled to see Muddy Waters listed as a ‘Texas musician’). And it’d make a fine introduction to Texas for the many newcomers who still flock here despite housing values that rival Mars-colony prices. Wright’s volume is more earnest, more up-to-date, though far less droll, less literate than McMurtry’s collections.
I suspect that means it’s more likely to age quicker. As I previously admitted, Walter Benjamin, Narrow Grave and God Save Texas are very different books. But they are examples of knowledgeable, Texas-born writers taking stock of their state. And considering them together, one learns as much about their authors as the territory they survey. McMurtry contemplates his own life and the history (and the demise and persistent mythic existence) of cowboys. Meanwhile, Wright crosses the state and has to consider the likes of Alex Jones’ InfoWars.
But by the end, both authors seek forms of reconciliation with the lives they’ve lived and the larger-than-life state they’ve lived in. It says something about our state that it provokes such personal reckonings. This is Texas as burden and inspiration. No wonder our authors feel the need to explain it, to make peace with it. It’s like Mom and Dad and that first love they lost.
For better and worse, it’s made these authors who they are.