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 house down, Texas style.” Anyone who has attended Selected Shorts on tour, or any kind of story reading series knows it’s the readers who make or break this type of performance. The Texas Bound series is a quality one. Hearing the stories read on tape by proficient actors adds a dimension to the characters, cementing in our minds their speech patterns and mannerisms along with their circumstances. In their most basic sense, stories are meant to be heard, and sometimes the distance between a mouth and an ear can make all the difference.
In Janet Peery’s “What the Thunder Said,” our eighteen-year-old narrator, Mackie Spoon, newly across the Texas border from Oklahoma to escape a family run over with religion, embodies the qualities a Texas protagonist should. She’s passionate, free-thinking, loner with a heart, and tough. Her language locks her into her setting, a wheat farm in Texas dust storm country where “willow brakes and cottonwoods and sand plum trees had kept the damage down. Still you could see in it the scoured look of things.” And Mackie tends to the types of chores one might envision when they think of life on a Texas farm: gathering eggs, milking cows, even assisting the birth of a calf. And while Mackie might have been right at home in Edna Ferber’s Giant or Larry McMurtry’s “Horseman Pass By,” through Peery’s story—a tale of adultery, grief and unrequited devotion—she tells us something genuine about human nature, no matter where it’s lived:
“. . . We lay down in all of it, in a way that felt like all the world was gathered into one sweet skin, and though you know it’s wrong, down deep, in bone and blood and muscle, you want the one thing your head tells you you’re not supposed to want, and in that wanting, in that knowing it’s wrong, there is a stillness at the center, calm and full and sly, that comes from knowing you will do it anyway, and you tell your head to cease its thinking, to let the bone and blood and muscle have their way; glad, for what you’re doing seems the holiest of human acts. And in that time when everything’s afight within you, you are whole as you will ever be . . .”
Luckily for short story fans, Texas looks out for its own. In making a place for voices from every corner of the state, the Texas Bound collection of short fiction and stories on tape just may begin the chronicling of our contemporary literary tradition. In this sense Texas literature doesn’t have to arrive, it’s already home.
Arts and Letters Live
The literary project sponsored by the Dallas Museum of Art and the Friends of the Dallas Public Library, continues its seventh season through May 10, 1998. The Texas Bound portion of the event incorporates four performances, three are of Texas short stories and one is the touring Selected Shorts program from New York. Three performances remain at the time of this publication:
Monday, March 9: 6:30pm & 8:30pm
Texas Bound from Broadway: The seventh annual appearance of Selected Shorts from New York’s Symphony Space theater:
Ann Beattie’s “Janus,” read by Fionnula Flanagan; Rebecca Lee’s “The Banks of the Vistula,” read by Lisa Fugard; James Thurber’s “The Catbird Seat,” read by Isaiah Sheffer.
Monday, March 23: 6:30pm & 8:30pm
Texas Stories: Adults Only
Robert Flynn’s “Truth and Beauty,” read by G. W. Baily; Katherine Anne Porter’s “Magic,” read by Ramona Austin; Dagoberto Gilb’s “Maria de Covina,” read by Octavio Solis.
Monday, April 6: 6:30pm & 8:30pm
Texas Stories: Anything Can Happen
Jim Sanderson’s “Ladies’ Man,” read by Larry Hagman; Tracy Daugherty’s “Assailable Character,” read by John Benjamin Hickey; Judy Troy’s “Ramone,” read by Angie Phillips.
The Texas Bound series also goes on tour at the William Edrington Scott Theater of the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth on May 18, and at the Alley Theatre, Houston on June 1. For more information, call 214/922-1219.
Distinguished writer visits and two salutes to Texas writers Katherine Anne Porter and Larry L. King are also featured literary events in April and May.
Texas Bound Book II: 22 Texas Stories
(1998 SMU Press for the Dallas Museum of Art, $22.50 hard, $12.95 paper) Edited by Kay Cattarulla with a foreword by John Graves.
Donald Barthelme, “The School”
John Bennet, “Flat Creek Road”
James Lee Burke, “The Convict”
Robert Olen Butler, “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot”
Sandra Cisneros, “Barbie-Q”
Matt Clarke, “The West Texas Sprouting of Loman Happenstance”
Tom Doyal, “Sick Day”
Tom Doyal, “Uncle Norvel Remembers Ghandi”
Dagoberto Gilb, “The Prize”
Dave Hickey, “I’m Bound to Follow the Longhorn Cows”
Barbara Hudson, “The Arabesque”
Arturo Islas, “The King of Tears”
Carolyn Osborne, “The Accidental Trip to Jamaica”
Janet Peery, “What the Thunder Said”
Hermine Pinson, “Kris/Crack/Kyle”
Katherine Anne Porter, “The Jilting of Granny Weatherall”
Annette Sanford, “Six White Horses”
Lisa Sandlin, “The Old Folks Wish Them Well”
R.E. Smith, “The Gift Horse’s Mouth”
Marshall Terry, “Angels Prostate Fall”
Donna Trussell, “Fishbone”
Miles Wilson, “On Tour with Max”
Texas Bound: 19 Texas Stories
(1994 SMU Press for the Dallas Museum of Art, 260 pp, $22.50 hard, $10.95 paper) Edited by Kay Cattarulla with a foreward by Lawrence Wright.
Rick Bass, “Antlers”
Lee Merrill Byrd, “Major Six Pockets”
Diane DeSanders, “When He Saw Me”
Mary K. Flatten, “Old Enough”
Robert Flynn, “The Midnight Clear”
William Goyen, “Precious Door”
William Goyen, “The Texas Principessa”
A.C. Greene, “Before Daylight”
William Hauptman, “Good Rockin’ Tonight”
Shelby Hearon, “The Undertow of Friends”
Larry L. King, “Something Went with Daddy”
Reginald McKnight, “The Kind of Light that Shines on Texas”
Larry McMurtry, “There Will Be Peace in Korea”
Tom·s Rivera, “Picture of His Father’s Face”
Annette Sanford, “Trip in a Summer Dress”
C.W. Smith, “Witnesses”
Lynna Williams, “Personal Testimony”
Bryan Woolley, “Burgers, Beer, and Patsy Cline”
Lawrence Wright, “Escape”
Texas Bound III: 7 by 7: More Stories by Texas Writers, Read by Texas Actors
(1998, recorded live at the Dallas Museum of Art, 2 cassettes, $16.95)
Tom Doyal’s “Sick Day,” read by Barry Corbin
Marshall Terry’s “Angels Prostate Fall,” read by Randy Moore
R.E. Smith’s “The Gift Horse’s Mouth,” read by Peri Gilpin
James Lee Burke’s “The Convict,” read by James Black
Robert Olen Butler’s “Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot,” read by Octavio Solis
Barbara Hudson’s “The Arabesque,” read by Marcia Gay Harden
Donald Barthelme’s “The School” read by Raphael Parry
Texas Bound II: 8 by 8: More Stories by Texas Writers, Read by Texas Actors
(1996, recorded live at the Dallas Museum of Art, 2 cassettes, $16.95)
Matt Clark’s “The West Texas Sprouting of Loman Happenstance,” read by Brent Spiner
Mary K. Flatten’s “Old Enough,” read by Julie White
Arturo Islas’s “The King of Tears,” read by Octavio Solis
Tom Doyal’s “Uncle Norvel Remembers Ghandi,” read by Randy Moore
Janet Peery’s “What the Thunder Said,” read by Kathy Bates
Miles Wilson’s “On Tour with Max,” read by John Benjamin Hickey
Hermine Pinson’s “Kris/Crack/Kyle,” read by the author
Larry L. King’s “Something Went with Daddy,” read by G.W. Bailey
Texas Bound: 8 by 8, Stories by Texas Writers, Read by Texas Actors (1993, recorded live at the Dallas Museum of Art, 2 cassettes, $15.95)
Larry McMurtry’s “There Will be Peace in Korea,” read by Tommy Lee Jones
William Goyen’s “The Texas Principessa,” read by Doris Roberts
Robert Flynn’s “The Midnight Clear,” read by Tess Harper
Reginald McKnight’s “The Kind of Light That Shines on Texas,” read by Tyress Allen
Lynna Williams’s “Personal Testimony,” read by Judith Ivey
Tom·s Rivera’s “Picture of His Father’s Face,” read by Roger Alvarez
Annette Sanford’s “Trip in a Summer Dress,” read by Norma Moore
Lawrence Wright’s “Escape,” read by Randy Moore
Available at the DMA Store, 214/922-1256, or direct from the publisher at 800/826-8911. Or order Texas Bound online.