Books

Lawrence Wright Demonstrates That Texas is a State of Multitudes

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Texas.

Whatever the state evokes is likely big and a bit outlandish. In fact, the list of what is big and a bit outlandish about Texas is itself big and a bit outlandish: speculators—plural—who pulled predictions of the location of oil out of thin air and struck it rich anyway, the AstroDome debuting as the world’s biggest air-conditioned building, Houston as a city aspiring to join the world-class with nary a zoning law, Dallas as a city once so resolutely anti-communist that not only could the symphony not play Shostakovich, but the parks department could not plant red poppies, public officials so bumbling in their pseudo-cosmopolitan aspirations they proposed Jorge Luis Borges as the state’s “poet lariat,” a position ostensibly for living Texans, not dead Argentinians. Even the hipsters of Austin seem like super-hipsters, with their SXSW, a Woodstock for the age of brands, and their apparent realization that the coasts can only remain cool for so much longer, that eventually everyone is going to move, probably to Texas.

Like archetypes in general, it’s frequent that those about Texas spring from some fundamental truth (the one about Texas, or at least Austin, as the place of the future among them: eight Californians move to the city every day and the North Korean leader Kim Jung Un has placed it on the list of American nuclear strike targets, alongside New York, Washington, and Los Angeles). Nonetheless the facts on the ground—as they often are—are more nuanced and less absolute. In God Save Texas, Lawrence Wright, the New Yorker writer, author of such books as The Looming Tower and Going Clear, and a longtime Texan and Texas insider, has taken Texas’s archetypes and explored them on a refreshingly human scale.

It’s a worthy endeavor for any place that looms as large as Texas at home —Remember the Alamo? Are we ever going to be able to forget it?—and abroad—when the Norwegians say “Dar var helt texas!” when they mean “it was totally bonkers.” But it’s also important for a state that in so many ways seems to be a (say the first part of this word silently if there are any Texans around) microcosm of America.

As Wright writes, “Because Texas is a part of almost everything in modern America—the South, the West, the plains, Hispanic and immigrant communities, the border, the divide between the rural areas and the cities—what happens here tends to disproportionately affect the rest of the nation.” (Perhaps it’s some reassurance to anti-Trump readers then that Wendy Davis, a former state senator and failed Democratic gubernatorial hopeful, has said “Texas is not a red state, it is a nonvoting blue state.”)

Anybody who has contemplated Texas beyond the red state/blue state dichotomies of a place that contains Marfa minimalism and the saturated hyperreality of SXSW, a frontier, wildcatting oil-boom economy and thriving modern tech sector, knows that it is a state of multitudes, but Wright—witty, keen, and measured—shows them at the granular. At that level, the aggregate of Texas is clear, and the question that emerges is whether the form will hold together. As Wright explores that history and terrain of the state, he’s suspect.

Particularly illuminating of his study is that of the state’s political connective tissue in the form of the Speaker of the House Joe Straus, a moderate Jewish Texas Republican (now on his way out). To say “Texas politician” is to evoke someone seemingly best approached with a bullet-proof vest and only after a thorough review of one’s birth certificate to double-check what gender it lists, lest you need to use the restroom. Yet Straus belies that image as Wright shows him through one session deftly managing extremist members of his chamber who rail ignorantly against “death panels” and obsess about one of those notorious bathroom bills to save funding for the Texas Commission on the Arts and provide more for foster-care programs.

Nonetheless, large and looming problems in the state remain, particularly around education, infrastructure, and inclusiveness, and Wright is an honest enough critic to see that their outcomes are from certain and may not be hopeful.

“The refusal to face these challenges head-on seems to me not only imprudent, but decidedly un-Texan,” he writes.

What’s left beyond that uncertainty is Wright’s own personal story, which in the end of the book takes him to pondering the conundrum faced by everyone who has ever felt the pull of someplace farther, someplace supposedly more glamorous and seemingly more important and decided to stay. As he walks around possible grave sites for him at the Texas State Cemetery, the resting place for the state’s notable that’s apparently eager to induct its internees well before they’ve even died, it becomes clear that he knows that the thought what if I had went is a binary as confounding and as pointless as its opposite, what if I had stayed.

“I’ve always chosen to remain a step away from the center of the action, which for me would have been in the bustle of Manhattan or the corridors of power in Washington or the bungalows of Hollywood studies,” he writes. “They are all lives that beckoned to me. Each of them might have been more fulfilling that one I chose. Instead, I’ve lived in a culture that is still raw, not fully formed, standing on the margins, but also growing in influence, dangerous and magnificent in its potential.”

Indeed. And we’re lucky he’s been around to document it.