Canon Fever

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

March 1996By Comments

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 is a good example of the outsider perspective applied to good advantage. Though LaSalle gets some things wrong (Austin, he says, is a city without cemeteries), he gets other, more important things exactly right, such as the moral temper of the age. Some people, after all, find an unsettling, disturbing quality in the pervasive Texas sun.

LARRY MCMURTRY, Lonesome Dove, 1985. The eighties were very, very good to Larry McMurtry. He became a millionaire, won a Pulitzer prize, and published six novels. Lonesome Dove won the hearts and minds of Texans and non-Texans alike, as loquacious Gus McCrae and taciturn Woodrow Call, two old Texas Rangers, rode straight out of nineteenth-century history into American myth on the longest danged cattle drive that never took place but should have. And McMurtry is not done with Gus and Call yet. There has been a sequel and a prequel, with maybe a couple more prequels to come. McMurtry deserves all of his success; he has been the dominant Texas novelist in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, and he’s not out of the running for this decade either.

R.G. VLIET, Scorpio Rising, 1985. Completed in the last year of a life shortened by cancer, this novel received excellent reviews nationally but has lapsed into obscurity in the author’s native state. It consists of two different stories, one set in 1976 in Massachusetts that tells of a displaced and misshapen Texan, a hunchback dwarf, who returns to his home state to attend a funeral when suddenly the time shifts to 1902 and that section ends. The second part, set between 1904 and 1907, has plenty of classic Southern gothic family skeletons—genetic degeneracy, murder, revenge, and so on—and it’s Vliet’s imagery and poetic storytelling skill that hold the two stories together.

STEPHEN HARRIGAN, A Natural State, 1988. Harrigan, a contributing editor at Texas Monthly, is one of the heirs of the Bedichek line of nature writing, and this volume shows the author’s thoughtful attachment to a state that he wisely notes is “an imperfect place in which to seek epiphanies about nature.” These essays reveal a quiet affection for rivers and islands and deserts and canyons as well as some worry about such man-made habitats as zoos and underwater contrivances for exhibiting Ralph the Swimming Pig.

LAWRENCE WRIGHT, In the New World: Growing Up With America, 1960-1984, 1988. The New York Times called this book a sort of Sun Belt Sorrows of Young Werther, and that’s about right. Despite its rather ponderous title, this thinking-man’s baby boomer memoir offers valid insights into how a well-brought-up conservative Christian youth growing up in Dallas in the sixties was radically changed—by the assassination of JFK, the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and attending college in the hedonistic New Orleans—into a liberal and a conscientious objector.

SHELBY HEARON, Owning Jolene, 1989. In the wittiest novel by this prolific author, Hearon’s protagonist narrator is a college girl chameleon who has spent her young life playing a dazzling array of roles laid out for her by her eccentric mother and “normal” father, who are divorced. Family members keep kidnapping Jolene, and the title’s “owning” comes to refer to her body as both self and image, since one of her roles is posing nude for a famous painter who is also her lover. A funny comedy with loads of likeable characters, the novel bounces around Texas in the oil-bust eighties.

DAVE HICKEY, Prior Convictions, 1989. A promising writer of fiction in the sixties, Hickey published several stories in campus and little magazines and then abandoned fiction altogether, instead becoming one of the savviest avant-garde art critics in the nation. This unexpected collection has therefore a kind of archaeological value with reprints of interesting work such as “I’m Bound to Follow the Longhorn Cows” and “An Essay on Style,” notable for granting intelligence to fraternity boys.

WILLIAM HUMPHREY, No Resting Place, 1989. The novel begins with a schoolboy historical pageant during the centennial celebration of 1936, designed to commemorate the storied events of a hundred years before. When the father of the narrator learns that his son has chosen to play the role of Mirabeau B. (for Buonaparte) Lamar, the second president of the Republic of Texas, the father is enraged, for he wants no son of his to lionize that “sorry rascal.” He traces Lamar’s perfidy in the destruction of the Cherokee Nation, from the removal of Cherokee in Texas to an internment camp in Georgia and back again to Texas, where under Lamar’s presidency, Chief Bowles and his tribespeople are slaughtered.

JEFF LONG, Duel of Eagles: The Mexican and U.S. Fight for the Alamo, 1990. If Oliver Stone were ever to make a movie about Texas history, this is the book he’d base it on. Jeff Long’s contemptuous view of Texas’ fabled past aroused tempers around the state, but nearly everybody conceded that it was a good read despite its sledgehammer debunking of William B. Travis as a syphilitic satyr and Sam Houston as an alcoholic opium addict. In Long’s conspiracy-theory view of history, the “so-called Texas Revolution was designed only to wrench a huge chunk of Mexican territory free of Mexican control long enough for the United States to annex it.”

AMERICO PAREDES, George Washington Gómez, 1990. Originally written when the author was a young man, between 1936 and 1940, this novel was not published until Paredes was a figure much honored in the Hispanic and Anglo communities for his ground-breaking folkloric study of turn-of-the-century Mexican American hero Gregorio Cortez. Gómez traces the life of an intelligent, ambitious young Hispanic in Brownsville who wants to be a leader of his people but who sells them out by working for some sinister federal agency. The novel is notable for its overtly negative portrayals of Anglos and for a savage sketch of one K. Hank Harvey, a windbag racist who is clearly based on J. Frank Dobie.

SANDRA CISNEROS, Woman Hollering Creek, 1991. In these stories, Texas’ leading Chicana author explores in politically correct fashion the feelings and put-upon lives of passionate Hispanic women living in an Anglo world. The title story makes excellent use of the haunting name of the creek that crosses Interstate 10 near San Antonio. Recently the recipient of a MacArthur prize, an empowering gift from the (Anglo) gods, Cisneros is reported to be working on a novel.

CORMAC MCCARTHY, All the Pretty Horses, 1992. A surfeit of riches: The relocation of McCarthy from Tennessee to El Paso is the best import from the Volunteer State since Davy Crockett came down to the Alamo. Nobody can agree yet on which of McCarthy’s Texas novels is the best, Blood Meridian, All the Pretty Horses, or The Crossing, but Horses, which won a National Book Award, is certainly the most accessible. In rhythms derived from Hemingway and Faulkner, it tells the stirring story of three Texas boys who get into some high-grade adventures in northern Mexico. Hero John Grady Cole, at sixteen, can ride better, endure more pain, and love longer than is entirely believable. Although he speaks vernacular English, his Spanish is pure Castillian, but so what? It’s high literary romance in the best tradition of Cooper, Hawthorne, and Melville.

MARY KARR, The Liars’ Club, 1995. Best memoir in a long time. Set mainly in 1961 in the industrialized, chemically sodden lowlands of East Texas, Karr’s account of her incredibly dysfunctional family is a poignant page-turner. It’s also very funny. She resurrects honorable expressions that I haven’t heard for thirty years, like “I shit you not.” She also, no easy feat, creates three unforgettable characters—a hard-working, hard-drinking father; a high-strung mother who marries instead of dates; and Karr, a nervy, smartassed kid and survivor.

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