By the time I graduated from high school, I was sick of Texas. I did everything I could to cleanse myself of its influence…I’ve seen the same thing happen to people who come from other societies with a strong cultural imprint; they reverse the image. But being the opposite of what you were is not the same as being somebody new. As soon as the doors to liberation opened, I fled. I wanted to be someplace open, tolerant, cosmopolitan, and beautiful. I thought I would never come back.
When I heard Pulitzer-winning journalist Lawrence Wright’s newest was about his native state of Texas, I was disappointed. He’s written two of my favorite books, Going Clear and The Looming Tower, and I’m as awed by his writing and storytelling abilities as I am by his sheer fearlessness. Who takes on both Scientology AND radical Islamic terrorism in one lifetime?
I think part of my hesitation was that I couldn’t get a feel for what exactly the book was about. A history of the state didn’t really strike my fancy, it didn’t sound like a memoir, and seemed like a mix of political and cultural studies were involved. It turns out to be a well-blended combination of all of the above and then some. And I stand corrected that Texas isn’t a topic to be in the same leagues as cults, war reporting, and religious extremism.
After reading, I realize that I’m just going to accept everything he writes. I’ll read a book about his breakfasts if he wants. He has a way of imparting information that doesn’t come across dry or dull whatsoever, seamlessly weaving statistics into stories in a way that you can actually absorb them. I rarely remember concrete statistics from my reading and when I try to retell them, I mangle them completely. Not so when learning them from Wright – he makes his points so eloquently.
I learn so much from his storytelling and only realize it later. Like these statistics, for example, which I can’t believe I didn’t know but still can’t believe are true:
For many years Texas led the nation in the number of refugees it admits. In 2016, Texas took in 8,300 of the 85,000 refugees that came to America, a close second to California…Houston accepts more refugees than any city in the country. At last count (2010), Texas has the largest number of Muslim adherents in the United States. However, the governor decided in September 2016 to withdraw from the federal resettlement program.
Or this introduction to Houston’s zoning laws, or lack thereof, which also illustrates his ever-present attention to context:
Houston is the only major city in America without zoning laws. You can build pretty much anything you want anywhere you want, except in designated historical districts. You’ll see some odd sights, such as a two-story family home adjacent to a roller coaster, or an erotic nightclub next to a shopping gallery, or a house made of beer cans. Solo skyscrapers suddenly pop up in residential neighborhoods. The absence of zoning is an artifact of the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s and 1960s, when zoning was viewed as a communist plot.
I realized many times throughout that my impressions of Texas are unreasonably biased. He explains the Lone Star state to outsiders (though I can’t imagine natives wouldn’t love this portrait too) through the lens of his own life and work experience, often employing others’ voices – friends, mentors, colleagues, myriad Texas personalities. Everyone from Matthew McConaughey (Wright’s onetime neighbor) to a Beyonce namecheck, Willie Nelson, Elizabeth Taylor and the culturally significant Giant, to communities of very intense birdwatchers.
Texas is growing exponentially, seeing daily influxes of residents from other states like California (which I’d describe as Texas’s frenemy based on the contradictory relationship between the two.) Wright doesn’t shy from more serious issues – the state’s controversial politics earns multiple chapters, including examining the divide between increasingly liberal and progressive populations with the state’s extremely conservative leadership, a juxtaposition I’m still struggling to understand.
But contradiction is a running theme in Wright’s examination of Texas. He looks at the state’s historical roots in liberalism, home to Lyndon B. Johnson, and how it’s now become an ultra conservative stronghold, better known for the Bush family (he wonderfully gives insight into their different perception in Texas than the rest of the country while remaining unflinchingly honest.)
The LBJ section is an unexpected delight. A peek:
The LBJ Ranch is now a national park, and one early summer day as I was driving west I decided to stop in. The bluebonnets and Indian blankets along the roadsides had faded, replaced by purple thistles and Mexican hats. Lyndon Johnson used to race down these narrow roads in his Lincoln convertible, with a scotch and soda in hand, terrifying visiting heads of state as he careened into the curves. The Lincoln was equipped with a special lever-action horn that bellowed like a rutting bull in order to capture the attention of the heifers in the pasture. Johnson would be trailed by a station wagon full of Secret Service agents, and periodically he would slow down and rattle the ice in his styrofoam cup outside his window until an agent dashed over and refilled his drink.
After Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, an aide warned him that black protestors in Washington might march on Georgetown and burn it down. “I’ve waited thirty-five years for this day,” Johnson said.
Texans agonized through the Johnson presidency, sharing in his humiliation, but also enduring the mortification of his hillbilly manners and cornpone accent. The hatred heaped upon him splattered over the rest of us. LBJ was the lens through which we were viewed.
Wright shows how my impression isn’t exactly unusual, there are plenty of reasons for Texas to have its outsize and not always inaccurate reputation. Consider the cast of colorful eccentrics and larger-than-life personalities who dot his stories.
On the side of I-40 you come upon Cadillac Ranch—ten vintage, graffiti-covered Caddies buried nose down in the dirt, tail fins to the sky. It is certainly the most famous art installation in the state. Stanley Marsh 3, an arts supporter and prankster, commissioned the work in 1974. He also liked to put up phony traffic signs, such as Road Does Not End and You Will Never Be the Same…When a developer threatened to build a suburb next to Marsh’s property, Stanley erected a billboard on his property line saying:
POISONOUS SNAKE FARM
They put a cowboy hat on René Magritte and took him to a rodeo. (Dominique de Menil and husband John, art patrons and “cultural modernizers” of Houston)
Periodically, Larry McMurtry erupts to deprecate the state of literature in Texas, which he has called “disgracefully insular and uninformed,” and produced by “a pond full of self-satisfied frogs.”
The Observer…was co-edited by Molly Ivins and Kaye Northcott. Molly was six feet tall, red-haired and big-boned. At her side was a black dog named Shit. Molly could spin out resonant Texas witticisms that became classics as soon as she uttered them. Jim Mattox, the attorney general, was “so mean he wouldn’t spit in your ear if your brains were on fire.”
Quoting fellow New Yorker writer John Bainbridge: “Texas is a mirror in which Americans see themselves reflected, not life-sized but, as in a distorting mirror, bigger than life. They are not pleased by the image.”
Everything in his telling is personal, as he interprets the state and its uniqueness through experience, or uses his travels to set the scene. Wright’s stories, interspersed frequently with the big-picture historical, political and cultural analyses, are well chosen and beautifully told. I wouldn’t say it’s memoir but it’s certainly deeply personal. He uses his life’s catalogue of experiences and reflections on what they taught him to illustrate the larger story of the state and its wild personality, and how his own identity has been shaped simply through living most of his life there.
Part of me had always wanted to leave Texas, but I had never actually gone.
He muses on what the state has meant to him in various stages of his life, and he did actually leave – college in New Orleans, teaching in Cairo as a newlywed, among other jaunts – but he always came back.
We never felt that we had landed and wondered if there was any place that was somehow right for us.
I suppose many people live in places they’re not especially attached to, or that they actively hate.
As harsh as he is on some of Texas’ more reprehensible facets (Ted Cruz and his brand of politics get multiple mentions, plenty of guns, although even here I was surprised by some hopeful statistics), Wright defends Texas admirably while still shining a spotlight on flaws, hypocrisies and shortcomings. It’s such a human portrait of a place.
It’s a strange, dysfunctional marriage between Texas and the United States. Texas is at once the most super-American of states and the most indigestible.
Apologies for such a quote-heavy review, but if I’d read excerpts I would’ve been on this one faster and more enthusiastically. Wright’s unique journalistic skills, his sensitivities to place and history and ability to convey emotional situations without any trace of melodrama make this a revelatory treasure. Wholly entertaining from start to finish, unexpectedly hilarious, honest and meaningful – however “indigestible” it may seem, Texas’s role in the country is only growing and I’m glad this book delivers a heartfelt insider’s glimpse. 4.5/5