Big and Bright
God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State
by Lawrence Wright.
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2018
340 pp. $27.95 cloth.
Lawrence Wright’s newest book is—in the best possible sense—a mess. God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State resembles a certain type of Texas antique store: photos and tables and lamps arranged not neatly but crammed into every available space, with piles of more stuff (often, the best of the lot) stacked and leaned every which way down in the basement. It should be impossible to fit so many emotions, reflections, and opinions (often contradictory) into 340 pages, but Wright manages. Wright, who grew up in Dallas, whose businessman father was due to attend a luncheon for John F. Kennedy on the day Kennedy was assassinated, tells us, “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 had been pious, but I became a bohemian existentialist.” So he writes—from his home in Austin.
Does Wright love Texas? Hate it? Both? He clearly loves Austin, his bike, his family, and such far-flung towns as Marfa and Wink. Add to that private gardens, Big Bend National Forest, the Houston theatre scene, wild junipers, and did we mention Austin? What he dislikes—Buc-ee’s, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, Texas politics in general, fracking, and did we mention Dan Patrick?—he dislikes with an intensity that nearly leaps off the page. Within three paragraphs Wright can veer from enchanted to disgusted and back again. It’s a wild ride—but on balance, irresistible.
Start where Wright and his friend Steve Harrigan start, on an extended bicycle tour “past the wildflowers and the mockingbird trills of the Hill Country.” So far, so sublime, but vulgarity awaits up ahead, in New Braunfels. Texans might be forgiven for taking pride in Arch “Beaver” Aplin III, whose business model for an interstate stop named Buc-ee’s was so simple it was a wonder no one else had thought of it: first hooking Mom in with the promise of immaculate restrooms (and delivering), then winning over the kids with kolaches and beef jerky. (And if Dad has to pay three extra cents per gallon at the pump, he can just deal with it.) Wright, however, goes inside, notices “Come and Take It” t-shirts and bumper stickers, and sees the decline of, well, the West: “At Buc-ee’s, an aspiring Texan can get fully outfitted not only with the clothing but also with the cultural and philosophical stances that embody the Texas stereotypes . . . a lowbrow society, in other words, that finds its fullest expression in a truck stop on the interstate.”
Dude. It’s a gas station. (What it isn’t is a truck stop; big rigs are not allowed on the property.)
This, again and again, is the Wright method: take a lovely moment, linger on it long enough, and damned if it doesn’t lead to something Texas-ugly. Wright and his friend Steve stop at a mission, San Francisco de la Espada, and treat themselves to barbecue being sold by a local amateur baseball league. Their attention is drawn to a wedding inside the ancient building, which Wright lovingly describes: “Presently, the bride and groom emerged, and as the bells pealed they stood for photographs in front of the Moorish arch of the doorway.” This tableau reminds Wright of—life’s random beauty? The potential of the human spirit? No: genocide. “We talked about how the Spanish colonization was an outgrowth of the Inquisition and the ousting of the Moors . . . The conquistadors brought with them the entire catalog of European pestilence—bubonic plague, smallpox, measles, influenza—producing one of history’s greatest demographic disasters.” Heavens. Good thing Wright wasn’t invited to the reception.
And so it goes. Houston is “one of the best five best restaurant cities in the United States. It has an excellent opera, and claims to have more theater space than any city except New York—achievements that mark Houston’s aspiration an international cultural center.” If only it weren’t built in a flood plain, and with climate change about to exert its wrath. (A play by Wright is scheduled to begin rehearsals downstairs at the Alley Theatre, just as Hurricane Harvey comes to town. To his credit, Wright keeps things in perspective, and visits refugees at the George R. Brown Convention Center.) Politics? “I think Texas has nurtured an immature political culture that has done terrible damage to the state and to the nation.” During a visit to the State Capitol, the liberal Wright pointedly contrasts Speaker Joe Straus, a moderate Republican, with conservative Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who comes as close as anyone to serving as the villain of the book.
All this this-but-that is entertaining as far as it goes, but the real treasure of the book lies in its last hundred pages, when Wright takes a deep breath and allows himself to literally smell the flowers. The prose fairly sparkles when he returns to Austin: “The hills that serve as a backdrop to the town are covered with junipers that bloom in January . . .” We read of the city’s music scene, of his friends Willie Nelson and Matthew McConaughey, the latter of whom lived across the street from the Wrights, and once invited the entire neighborhood to watch his beloved Longhorns at a barbecue he hosted. (Why McConaughey had to move away is a story known to most.) Marfa appears not just as a desert outpost of the famous lights and the Hotel Paisano, but a vibrant community where an aspiring writer or painter might like to live. Marfa gives way to Big Bend, and thence to the Closed Canyon Trail immortalized by director (and Austinite) Richard Linklater in the closing minutes of his masterpiece, Boyhood. Day gives way to night, the stars comes out, and then it hits us: for all his ranting, Wright loves Texas after all.
Joseph McDade is a Professor of Composition and British Literature at Houston Community College-Northwest.