Canon Fever

From Larry L. King’s greatest to Mary Karr’s latest, our quirky choices for the best contemporary Texas writing.

IN THE OLD DAYS, for better or worse, everybody agreed upon the canon of Texas writing. It was largely a man’s world, headed up by Dobie, Bedichek, and Webb. Katherine Anne Porter was worthy of the canon’s fame, though sometimes she was overlooked because she didn’t live in the state and didn’t often write about Texas. Other writers included Andy Adams, George Sessions Perry, Dorothy Scarborough, J. Evetts Haley, the three East Texas Williams—William Goyen, William A. Owens, and William Humphrey—Tom Lea, A.C. Greene, and John Graves , whose Goodbye to a River seemed to sum up the writers’ general interest in land, nature, and the past. Among the upstarts back then were Larry McMurtry, whose Horseman, Pass By was an instant classic in 1961, and Billy Lee Brammer, whose The Gay Place, published the same year, also broke new ground. Dobie, incidentally, had reservations about the manners and morals in both books.

Today there is a little agreement, beyond five or six titles, on what is the best contemporary Texas writing. Academics in Texas colleges spent much of the eighties holding conferences on Texas writers, and there was a fair amount of attention paid in the press. Now in the downsized nineties, the funds for such conferences appear to have dried up and the people who worry about such matters sit in solitary cubicles sending e-mail lists to one another. An encouraging development is the designation of March as Texas Writers’ Month, placing scribblers right up there with Kindness Week and School Board Recognition Month. In any case, the following list is not mine alone—but it is my compilation of the selections of others who also toil in the parched vineyards of Texas Literature. The twenty books are listed chronologically, not by rank. One restriction was that the books had to deal centrally with Texas, but the author did not have to be a Texan. As it turned out, most were Texans or near Texans anyway.

LARRY L. KING, Of Outlaws, Con Men, Whores, Politicians, and Other Artists, 1980. This collection by one of the state’s liveliest essayists contains such well-known pieces as “Playing Cowboy” and “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” The author’s self-proclaimed redneck shtick has entertained natives and nonnatives for decades, and the essays that have grown out of his personal experience are always laced with humor and insight. Portraits of faded politicians don’t have as long a shelf life, and King has known some faded ones.

ELMER KELTON, The Wolf and the Buffalo, 1980. The past fifteen years have been productive for San Angelo novelist Kelton, who began his career in the fifties by writing “powder-burners,” or made-to-order paperback westerns. A keen observer of Anglo ranching customs and habits of the mind, Kelton sets this historical novel during the time of the Indian wars in West Texas and creates two minority characters of considerable depth: Gideon Ledbetter, a buffalo soldier (as the Plains Indians termed African Americans), and Gray Horse, a Comanche warrior. The story of the end of a way of life, in which buffalo roamed and the Comanche were lords of the plains, is told in lean, unpretentious prose.

BRYAN WOOLLEY, November 22, 1981. Through a series of chapters narrated by a cross-section of well-drawn characters, the zeitgeist of Dallas becomes the focus of the portrait of a city on the day of the assassination. Woolley’s fictional Dallas is less sensational than those of fellow assassination novelists such as Bud Shrake (gonzo sleaze) or Don DeLillo (postmodern paranoia), but the dislike of Kennedy in some quarters—the rich, the right—and the real affection for him in others—the poor, the left—come through in vivid detail.

GARY CARTWRIGHT, Confessions of a Washed-up Sportswriter, Including Various Digressions About Sex, Crime, and Other Hobbies, 1982. For many years one of the top hard-boiled journalists in Texas, Cartwright, who is a senior editor at Texas Monthly, brought together the best of his magazine pieces. These essays about such subjects as Jack Ruby, stripper Candy Barr, and Cartwright’s apprenticeship at the old Fort Worth Press, where his co-workers included future novelists Bud Shrake and Dan Jenkins, are still as fresh and as lively as the day they were written.

ROLANDO HINOJOSA, Rites and Witnesses, 1982. Hinojosa, the most prolific Mexican American writer in Texas, has produced a string of novels set in the Valley called Klail City Death Trip. Hinojosa fans disagree about which one is the best. Rites and Witnesses is representative: a novel of voices—those of pragmatic, wry Hispanics living in the Valley and those of paternalistic, racist Anglos living there too. Hinojosa avoids shrill polemics in favor of dialogue, cultural interaction, and irony.

ROBERT CARO, The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Path to Power, 1982. The first volume in Caro’s ambitious biography of LBJ exhibits impressive research—seven years of it—related in a readable narrative style but marred by the author’s disapproval of his subject. To Caro, LBJ is a backwoods Machiavelli who knew from day one he wanted to be president and whose every decision thereafter was calibrated solely toward that end. An outsider, Caro doesn’t understand Johnson’s sense of humor, among other things. But chapters like the one called “The Sad Irons,” which describes farm wives’ misery of washing and ironing before rural electrification, are marvelous. The second volume, Means of Ascent (1990), also contains a lot of good sleuth work but binds Lyndon in the same monomaniacal straitjacket.

DAVID L. LINDSEY, A Cold Mind, 1983. The first of Lindsey’s Houston-based Stuart Haydon novels set the mold: educated, introspective, dandyish homicide detective Haydon investigates a series of bloodcurdling murders, in this case beautiful South American call girls who are dying horrible deaths from needle-injected rabies. Sound yummy? It takes a cold mind to detect a cold mind.

PETER LASALLE, Strange Sunlight, 1984. A prescient diagnosis of moral corruption during the boom years of real estate development in Austin, this novel by a Rhode Island native

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