Wednesday, May 9, 2018

God Save Texas by Lawrence Wright

Hardcover, 352 pgs, Pub Apr 17th 2018 by Knopf Publishing Group, ISBN13: 9780525520108

This is a fast and fabulous, smart and funny read…the kind that reads so effortlessly because the author has a lifetime of writing experience. There is a big-hearted generosity in Wright’s view of Texas, though he doesn’t hesitate to point out personalities or policies that diminish what he believes the state could be. Wright lived many years in Austin, the big blue liberal heart of Texas, a city that attracted so many people to what the city once was that it no longer resembles that attractive mixed-race, mixed-income diversity so rich with possibility.

Having read Wright’s big books on Carter’s peace talks at Camp David, and his exhaustive study of Christian Science, I was unprepared for the deep vein of “will you look at that” humor that richly marbles this piece. It is an utter delight to have Wright use his insider status as a resident to call out especially egregious instances of Texas bullshit.

The book is a memoir, really—the memoir of a natural raconteur from a state where cracking jokes about serious issues is an art form. But before page ten Wright makes clear his assessment of the state:
"Texas has nurtured an immature political culture that has some terrible damage to the state and to the nation. 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 rural areas and the cities—what happens here tends to disproportionately affect the rest of the nation. Illinois and New Jersey may be more corrupt, Kansas and Louisiana more dysfunctional, but they don’t bear the responsibility of being the future."
Wright is so skilled now at writing big books that he manages to give us lots of detail and information even in this more relaxed telling, all the while being really funny. He is clear-eyed about why Texas can be a big fail and yet he clearly loves the place.
"To strike it rich is still the Texas dream...Texans are always talking about how much they loved the state, but I wondered where was the evidence of that love."
Wright admits he considered leaving during the oil boom/bust in the 1980s when the state never seemed to live up to its obligations. He dreamed sometimes of decamping to liberal California, where he could flog his screenwriting skills...and make more money. He thinks that a country that can hold together two such immensely powerful and opposing forces as California and Texas has got to be something worthwhile and important. I used to think so, too, but feel less confident now. Sometimes I want to saw off those pieces of the country that claim to want so much freedom, and seal the borders. No trade. We’ll see then who comes out on top.

Music and art are sprinkled throughout this biography, obviously an important part of Wright’s attraction to the state. Each chapter sports woodcuts by David Dantz describing the chapter’s subject and Dantz’s endpapers illustrate the arc of the book. The art, like the prose, is rich with humor and attitude. Music is a part of Wright’s own biography and so he writes particularly well about the scene and historical influences. It’s rounded, this book, and interesting and fun and full of reasons to like Texas, despite its particularly awful politicians.

Texas was a reliably blue state until the 1990s. Houston is the only major city in America without zoning laws. AM Texas radio hosts Alex Jones. Ted Cruz makes jokes about Machine Gun Bacon on Youtube but as usual when Cruz is trying to be funny, it’s an epic fail. Dallas had been a city fostering extremism until Kennedy died there. After that humiliation, Dallas became more open and tolerant, more progressive…and developed more churches per capita than any city in the nation. Wright thinks Dallas has the ability to transform suffering into social change. I say we shouldn’t be blamed for being a little suspicious of all that supposed holiness. Evangelicals have shown what they are thinking where they are standing.

In the last chapters, Wright is open about searching for his final resting place. He is only seventy years old, but he is calling it for Texas. I really like that about him. He can conceive of life and death, Democrat and Republican, north and south in one sentence. He can love Texas and laugh at it, too. He has written a truly wonderful, un-put-down-able book about the biggest second-biggest state in the union.

I'm from Texas.

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