Horsemen, Goodbye

Thoughts on the gradual march of civility and urban sprawl across the lost frontier.

many another gifted bard. Dallas I haven’t enjoyed since the sixties, when I could still scout books at the Harper’s big bookshop in Deep Ellum, where my son now often performs. Dallas is a second-rate city that wishes it were first-rate.

San Antonio, too, I most enjoyed when it had a big messy bookshop, in this case, Brock’s, whose owner, Norman Brock, was known as poor broke Brock. The River Walk is still the most gracious promenade in Texas, and the breads at the Liberty Bar are wonderful—if you enjoy bread, and who doesn’t?

El Paso just doesn’t feel to me like a Texas city. It’s Mexico or, at the very least, New Mexico. It’s hard even to drive through it on the Ten and not be aware of the carnage across the river. My friend the writer Tom Miller, who has driven every mile of the border and written about it, told me recently that he had stopped crossing the bridge into Juárez. It is now too scary.

The pages I devoted to Austin in In a Narrow Grave recall a rather giddy time when the city boiled down to the Legislature and the university, plus a few fairly uninhibited women who picked and choosed between such celebrities as not infrequently drifted in. The nearest thing to a celebrity locally was the novelist Bill Brammer, with whom, for a time, I shared a house on Windsor Road. Bill’s estranged wife, Nadine, was so famous for her conquests that her chum the director Robert Benton made a movie inspired by her, called, of all things, Nadine.

Then Nadine married the late-arriving congressman Bob Eckhardt. The two of them set up house in Georgetown, D.C., where I opened a bookshop. And Bill Brammer, overcome by his creditors and his sorrows, died: his first novel (The Gay Place) is no longer much mentioned and his second (Fustian Days) was never finished. All who knew Bill Brammer regret this loss.

Sex was frequently on the mind of Austin folk in the sixties. I recall a sprightly young lady known locally as Miss Sweet Pussy, no doubt a sedate grandmother now.

I recognize that Austin has provided a welcoming environment for artists of many skill sets, but I still love Houston more: its flavors, its smells, its foods, its variety. It always had an abundance of blacks and Latinos, but in the eighties it added Asians and Middle Easterners, these last come here mainly to learn about the oil business. I ran a very eccentric bookshop there (Grace David’s) and later bought a less eccentric bookshop twice.

I also set maybe my best novel, Terms of Endearment, in Houston. (Though Duane’s Depressed is maybe as good.)

Houston, when I wrote about it forty years ago, covered 440 square miles; I don’t much want to know what the figure is today, but if you think of Greater Houston now, or Greater Dallas, the thought that springs is that most Texans now live in suburbs adjacent to cities, not in the core cities themselves. The cores of these cities—that is, the downtowns—have supplied their residents with very expensive and often attractive condos, for those who like to walk to the theater or a restaurant. The somewhat less wealthy live in the suburbs, where once the Longhorns grazed. Of course, there’s very big money invested in the suburbs now, but it’s most likely to be invested in sports palaces like the one where the Cowboys play (so far rather listlessly—NASCAR is a better bet).

I’ve returned a couple of times to the theme of the post-frontier, once in a book called Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen—a neglected book, I feel—and in my even more neglected novel Some Can Whistle. Which is okay. If you publish more than forty books, as I have, some will probably be neglected. What my whole body of work says, including the essay on cities, is that Texans spent so long getting past the frontier experience because that experience is so overwhelmingly powerful. Imagine yourself as a small hopeful immigrant family, alone on the Staked Plains, with the Comanche and the Kiowa still on the loose. The power of such experience will not sift out of the descendants of that venturer in one generation and produce Middletown. Elements of that primal venturing will surely inform several generations.

We have some real cities now; they may not be Bath, or Cheltenham, or Lyon, much less Paris. But they can generally muster more urban manners and more urban smarts than when I wrote about them forty years ago. Real civility is coming, folks.

One day at a time.

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