Christmas in Austin is the second installment in Benjamin Markovits’s planned tetralogy about the Essingers—an extended family of characters inspired by his experiences growing up in Austin as one of five children to law-professor parents. In Markovits’s previous book, Weekend in New York, pro tennis player Paul Essinger competes in the U.S. Open as his family gathers to support him. Now, a year and a half after those events, the clan has reunited in Texas to celebrate the holiday season together.
Markovits, who lives in London, likewise brings his own children to Austin each Christmas to visit their grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins. “In many ways, Austin has become a nicer place to visit: more to do and better things to eat. But I think if I lived there again, I might feel differently,” he told Texas Monthly. “Part of what I miss about the old Austin, though, is just what I miss about childhood—lower stakes, more free time, that kind of thing.”
In the following excerpt, Clémence, a journalist and the wife of Paul’s brother Nathan, rides out to suburban Austin with a radio producer named Kurt to record an interview for This American Life. Along the way, she reflects upon the changing face of the city and of her own life. — Jason Heid
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Clémence hated driving and relied on Nathan or taxis or the kindness of colleagues to get anywhere. She was used to accepting rides; it didn’t really bother her that Kurt maybe had a slight crush. At her age, she knew how to turn this kind of relationship into something maternal—that was probably a high percentage of what was going on anyway. Kurt was a young ambitious guy. (It was a big deal for him to work on This American Life—to work with her.) You forget when you’re married with kids how much time a guy like that spends alone, you can’t even really imagine it. They feel awkward around women, and that awkwardness comes across as something else, sexual hesitancy or interest. Anyway, it probably didn’t have much to do with her.
Kurt drove a Saab 9-3; it looked new. He must have parents with money. The small backseat was taken up with equipment: black cases and leather bags, things with metal legs. He had stopped off at KUT on the way over. When they got in the car, he said, “That’s a nice house your husband grew up in.”
“It’s a nice neighborhood.” This is how she deflected him.
But it’s true, every second morning she went for a run before breakfast and took pleasure from the quiet streets. All the houses looked different, people cared about their yards. You got a mix of income brackets, too. There were red-brick neo-Georgians with thirty-foot pillars guarding the front door, houses that basically looked like small-town banks. But you also saw white-walled bungalows, witches’ cottages, whose chimneystacks were hidden by ivy; bamboo covered the windows. Red brick, yellow brick, painted clapboard . . . Craftsman-style homes from the thirties, Colonials (like her in-laws’ house) from the twenties, modernist rebuilds in the new Austin vernacular—brightly painted boxes with pre-rusted metal towers rising out of them.
The park with the creek running through it was really just a grassy field; the footpath on one side was lined with old pecans. Most of the streets had sidewalks and were wide enough anyway for kids to play football in them or ride their bikes.
Variety and modesty and comfort, neighborliness and individualism—this is what it suggested, old American virtues, though in fact the Austin that Nathan felt nostalgic about existed only in pockets like Hemphill Park. Even here the people who could afford to buy or rent now were lawyers and tech types, businessmen. The high school history teachers and part-time musicians had been priced out.
Kurt was happy to talk about Austin, too. It seemed like moving here involved a certain amount of self-consciousness. Pretty much everyone he knew came from out of town, places like Richmond or Denver or Brooklyn or Palo Alto. It didn’t even matter any more. The city was changing so fast that the restaurants and bars and music joints you wanted to go to, even some of the parks and neighborhoods, probably weren’t around five years ago. There was no real advantage to being native. He had done some prep work yesterday, talking to Joel Beigott on the phone, just to see what he wanted to say. Joel was one of the guys who started the lights on 37th Street . . . one of those spontaneous outbreaks of collective self-expression. Pretty much everyone in the neighborhood went to town on their Christmas decorations: reindeers in the yard but also abstract stuff, bicycles with lit-up spokes, illuminated beer cans, mapped out diagrams of internal combustion engines. It was like a neighborhood art installation, people came from all over the city. The electricity bills must have been through the roof. But that was years ago, when Austin was a very different place. And recently Joel moved out—to one of those new developments outside of town. But who can tell where the town stops any more. Joel said, it used to be that the way you could recognize a real Austinite is they knew the short-cuts and places to eat and now you can recognize them because they don’t.
They crossed over North Lamar into Pemberton Heights, then swung onto Mopac and headed downtown. The shiny new skyline spread out along the river to the south; even on a cold day, with low cloud cover, the Frost Tower gleamed like brass. One of the advantages of not driving is that you can stare out the window.
But she was also thinking, Nathan has ambivalent feelings about going home, which often, in one way or another, I have to deal with. They’d had a fight or muted argument before breakfast. Their daughter Julie was moping around, lying in bed and then wasting time in the bathroom, refusing to get dressed. Nathan eventually lost patience.
“Snap out of it,” he said.
The argument didn’t matter much, except that it touched on a deeper disagreement between them—that his family made him unhappy, which is why he lost his temper. Which is partly why she didn’t want to come. She liked her in-laws but when the storm blew down from Canada, she thought, let’s stay in Cambridge and light fires. We can go sledding. Let’s have Christmas as a family. We’re the family.
From Mopac they merged onto 290 and then turned onto I-35. Kurt explained himself: There’s construction around the university, the road is down to two lanes. I thought it might be quicker to get on further south. Clémence was always amazed by the brain space driving takes up. People develop this intimate knowledge of uninteresting facts, it’s part of what makes them feel alive, like they’re living somewhere. Traffic started picking up. Christmas was over, there were trucks on the road. It seemed likely that her in-laws found it annoying that she was making this program about Austin. They thought she would get it wrong, even though Jean and Susie hadn’t lived here for over a decade, and Paul only moved back last year. For them Austin was really a house, it was really a childhood. Maybe even Nathan found it annoying.
For them it was like a source of reality, it was like a reservoir they could draw on. As if everywhere else, and even the rest of their lives, was slightly unreal—their jobs and marriages and kids. The fact is, Kurt probably knew Austin better than any of them.
When she first met Nathan, he was twenty-eight; she was thirty-six. Somehow the age difference mattered, it was part of the attraction. At that stage, he was still clerking for Judge Schuyler and applying for tenure-track jobs. Unsure of himself, waiting for recognition. Clémence seemed to him like a public figure. She covered the White House for The Sunday Times, after spending three years in Tehran. But she was tired of living like a foreign correspondent. She wanted to write a book, she wanted to buy a house. Of course, part of what she liked about Nathan was his attitude to family—this is always how it starts.
Had she put his career and worldview ahead of her own? At some point they decided she should quit The Sunday Times, to go freelance, which made life easier with the kids. But that was also because she had a chance of moving into broadcasting. They were more likely to meet, at a dinner party, somebody who had heard of her. Yet Nathan had ambitions she didn’t share, they recognized that. He wanted to be a Supreme Court judge, he wanted to shape the history of the nation, and the question was, how much of your ordinary life are you willing to sacrifice? You, and your children, are the ordinary life. But ambition made him unhappier than it made her, and slowly that kind of unhappiness . . . it’s very persuasive. You give in to the logic behind it, you make allowances. From the beginning she understood what the deal was: to be on his side. And when she met his family, she understood why. Liesel was a loving mother but sometimes short of sympathy for her oldest child. You fight these fights with your oldest child that make sympathy difficult. Poor Julie.
It was good to get out of the house. There was a danger of getting caught up in it all, which helped nobody.
Manzano Lane was visible from the highway. A big billboard, featuring an apple tree and a cart filled with apples, appeared by the side of the road, above one of those high flimsy-looking pine fences designed to keep out sound. There was an access lane, and Kurt drove up to the barrier, which was raised, and passed slowly by the security booth. The guard inside didn’t seem particularly interested. “My impression is, this is a mid-market community,” Kurt said. There were sign-posts at the street corners, advertising various trails, and a bike lane running by the side of the road. But some of the land looked undeveloped, they saw tractors sitting in dirt, orange plastic netting flapping around, and it’s possible some of the funding stream had dried up.
Clémence had a camera out and took pictures through the window. Plots were arranged in cul-de-sacs and crescents. The developers had tried to create a sense of variety by mixing one- and two-story buildings; some of them had brick siding or limestone pillars or both. But the general impression was of sameness. The houses looked boxy and odd, they had slanted roofs that ran into each other, they were painted in primary colors. There was a park or open grassy area in the middle, but on a cold day nobody seemed to be using it, not even the dog-walkers. Kurt’s SatNav had run out of information, they were drifting along.
Joel lived on something called Autumn Corner, and they found it eventually—a row of saplings, no more than three feet high, had been staked along the sidewalk. Every house had a driveway, and Joel’s had two cars backing into the road, a pick-up and a bright red Toyota Corolla, so Kurt parked along the curb. There weren’t any signs telling him not to. As soon as Clémence got out of the car, she could hear the highway. It was like a white noise machine, with little variations inside the general hum. “Where the hell are we?” Kurt said, as they walked up the poured concrete footpath to the front door.
Excerpted from CHRISTMAS IN AUSTIN by Benjamin Markovits. Published with permission of Faber & Faber. Copyright © 2019 by Benjamin Markovits.