GOD SAVE TEXAS: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State, by Lawrence Wright. Alfred A. Knopf, 349 pp., $27.95.
For a person who has spent the past 40 years trying to explain to other Yankees what’s so great about Texas, the publication of “God Save Texas,” the new work of nonfiction by Pulitzer Prize-winner Lawrence Wright (“The Looming Tower,” “Going Clear”) is a godsend. He does the job as thoroughly and concisely as anyone ever could, without neglecting to explain what is not so great about Texas, too.
A little back story: In 1976, I went home over spring break with a college friend. At her parents’ house in Dallas, we sat under a magnolia tree and drank Diet Dr Pepper, not then sold on the East Coast, out of a longneck glass bottle. Later, we drove down to Austin, and it was love at first sight. As a daughter of unloved New Jersey, even the mammoth ego of the place enchanted me. I lived in Austin for more than 20 years.
Of course, Austin has changed a lot since then, and Wright gives a characteristically well-formulated explanation of its glorious past and somewhat depressing present. “The very places that made Austin so hip are being demolished to make room for the hotels and office spaces needed to accommodate the flood of tourists and newcomers who have come to enjoy what no longer exists,” he writes.
The book opens in San Antonio, where the author is taking a bike ride with his best friend, Stephen Harrigan, author of “The Gates of the Alamo.” Wright explains that he once was a “self-hating Texan,” the son of bankers in Dallas; “the only black person I knew was our weekly maid.” He was deeply affected by the national revulsion against his hometown after the Kennedy assassination, though his conclusion is that “humiliation was exactly what Dallas needed.”
After meeting his wife, Roberta, at the University of Texas, Wright went on to live in Atlanta and New York. Though he has long since come home to stay, his renewed loyalty is complicated by a profound criticism: “I think Texas has nurtured an immature political culture that has done terrible damage to the state and to the nation.” That culture is explored at length, including recent episodes in the state legislature such as the transgender “bathroom bill,” and figures such as Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Greg Abbott.
Wright’s treatment flows impressionistically from one topic to the next, incorporating material from his New Yorker and Texas Monthly articles, and introducing myriad characters in a cascade of crystalline sketches. Among the dramatis personae: Sam Houston and Davy Crockett, Richard Linklater and Alex Jones, LBJ and Lady Bird, Willie Nelson, Ann Richards, Matthew McConaughey, Molly Ivins, Larry McMurtry and, of course, many a Bush.
Having touched on the Alamo and Texas’ war for independence in early chapters, Wright later visits the Mexican border, making the point that Mexico and Texas are “like a couple still living next door to each other after a particularly bitter divorce.” The darkness and violence suffusing this region are amplified by Wright’s memories of a catastrophic accident that occurred during his first trip to Mexico with his family when he was 16.
One of my favorite chapters lays out Wright’s three-part theory of culture. Level One is the nativist foundation, the basic qualities we recognize as Texan. This corresponds closely to the things I fell in love with in 1976, from the Tex-Mex cuisine to the macho cowboy mythology, from the bedrock social code of amiability to what Wright calls the “legendary qualities of boorishness, braggadocio, greed, and overall tackiness.”
Level Two is the cosmopolitan overlay, where outside influences like Chekhov and sashimi come racing in and cities “have practically obliterated their own native charms in order to become showplaces of other people’s ideas.”
Level Three arrives when the culture revisits its origins, exemplified by a fancy Houston restaurant devoted to native Texas cuisines. Interestingly, this evolution seems to describe Wright’s own development.
Lacing the brilliant analysis are Wright’s humorous and sometimes slightly off-color asides. For example, he writes of his infatuation with the astronauts he profiled at the Johnson Space Center in the 1980s. One of them was Rhea Seddon, a surgeon and jet pilot who took him to lunch in her Corvette. “I looked over at Dr. Seddon, with her long blond tresses tossed about like an advertisement for Clairol, and an unfamiliar thought leaped into my mind: I want to have your baby.”
As the state continues to grow in population and influence, perhaps my time as a Yankee advocate for all things Texan has finally come. God save Texas, indeed.