LET’S FACE IT, despite a long literary history—one as rich and as varied as that of New York or even Paris—Texas isn’t bookish. How can it be, when its storytellers began as rough-riding myth-makers, outlaws and freedom fighters, cowboys and cattlemen whose larger than life escapades didn’t warrant putting pen to paper for fear that the record would trap them and render them mundane. These guys could fight, and drink, and win the west—they were even poets in their own right. But could they write?
The fact that the literary legacy of the Southwest comes from folklore has been a hindrance to its being taken seriously, relegating Texas stories to vintage hardbacks embossed with bucking broncs who protect weighty yellowing pages. But it is experience that breeds storytelling, and the modern Texas experience is both unique and universal, delivering in its literature a borderless common ground untethered in spirit.
Texas has nature and endless sky, free-thinkers and brave souls, technological pioneers, and a diverse population with a number of ethnic backgrounds, the largest of which—the Hispanic population—is as integral a part of our culture as anything else. We’ve got liberal academics and Baptists, staunch Bible-belt conservatives, political progressives, the urban, the rural—Texas holds the voices of an entire country. Thankfully, it’s these voices that give life to the Texas Bound anthology, two collections of short stories edited by Kay Cattarulla of National Public Radio’s “Selected Shorts” fame, and now three audio cassette programs made up of a selection of these stories read by Texas actors (produced by the Dallas Museum of Art in conjunction with its Arts and Letters Live series). This quite “bookish” compilation manages to brandish the Texas aesthetic and challenge it at the same time.
The Printed Page
From the foreword of the most recent anthology Texas Bound Book II: 22 Texas Stories, by dean of Texas Letters and author of Goodbye to a River and Hardscrabble, John Graves:
“What we do have these days in terms of Texas and the Southwest—and have had for longer than some critics will admit—is a varied body of talented people producing books and stories and poems and essays of real merit, writings that are well worth reading not just for what they say but for how they say it as well.”
Including stories by Texas literary emissaries Sandra Cisneros, Dagoberto Gilb, Miles Wilson, Annette Sanford, Carolyn Osborn, and Katherine Anne Porter, Graves’ statement is not to imply that the newest Texas Bound doesn’t contain stories with a wonderful regionality to them. John Bennet’s “Flat Creek Road,” the tale of an impoverished yet happy childhood in Horace among the bull nettles and sour dock, conjures an image of rural East Texas that rivals the poignant descriptions of backwoods New England that E. Annie Proulx pens. Dagoberto Gilb’s “The Prize,” introduces readers to Chino, a bordertown barber concerned that he has the power of witchcraft.
And Matt Clark’s “The West Texas Sprouting of Loman Happenstance,” opens on a vast expanse of Texas highway where a traveling seed salesman’s Cadillac calls it quits. “The skies over the low mountains around him, egg-carton blue purpling up into squid-inky blackness, were nonplussed to witness the steamy demise of a once-regal highway yacht.”
But other stories take detours, transcending their Texas boundaries by illustrating a humanness that comes first, before the affect an environment might have on a character or a situation. While San Antonio native Sandra Cisnero’s “Barbie-Q” conveys a sentiment of urban blight, it also acts as an anthem for the girlhood Barbie doll experience, as timeless and placeless as pre-adolescence itself. “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot,” by 1993 Pulitzer prizewinner Robert Olen Butler, is a fantastical internal missive, wherein a paranoid husband has been changed into a parrot in a pet shop, and is purchased by the widow whose perceived infidelity still haunts him. Probably the oddest story of the bunch—and interestingly enough, the lead piece in the anthology—is Donald Barthelme’s “The School,” which explores the cycle of life and death in the way that theater of the absurd might tackle the subject, a remarkably comic vignette whose intellectual aspirations deem it “literature” for sure.
An Oral Tradition
Perhaps more suited to Texas’ literary past is an oral history of storytelling. Texas Bound recreates this legacy in its compilation of stories on tape, read by Texas actors for the Dallas Museum of Art’s annual Arts and Letters Live series. Having already garnered rave reviews for its first two audiocassettes—notable performances on the first cassette hosted by Tess Harper include Tommy Lee Jones’ reading of Larry McMurtry’s only published short story, “There Will Be Peace In Korea,” on which the novel The Last Picture Show was based, and Lawrence Wright’s University of Texas memoir, “Escape,” read by actor Randy Moore (who served as the project director during its first four seasons), the tapes give additional life to the stories, providing nuances that help take the experience over and above what the typical reader might create in his/her head.
The standout in the second series of tapes, hosted by G.W. Bailey, is SMU graduate Kathy Bates’ reading of Janet Peery’s “What the Thunder Said.” Bates’ performance brings the words off the page with the same fervor that keeps the story’s heroine—a boarder on a farm—from confronting the man she has been sleeping with, with her feelings of love for him.
And Houston-born Brent Spiner, who we recognize from his role as Lt. Commander Data on Star Trek: The Next Generation, does justice to the comic exuberance of Matt Clark’s “The West Texas Sprouting of Loman Happenstance.”
The newest collection of stories for the ear, Texas Bound III, hosted by Barry Corbin, comes out this month with performances by Frasier’s Peri Gelpin and screen actress Marcia Gay Harden ( The Spitfire Grill, The Daytrippers). According to the New York Times, Corbin’s rendition of Tom Doyal’s “Sick Day,” a small story about the ennui experienced by a car salesman who stays home one day with a cold, “brought the