Deep in the mindset of Texas
God save Texas
From the well-intentioned masses!
God save Texas
From the posers and jackasses!
God save Texas
He’s the only one who can!
- From an unpublished song by Marcia Ball and Lawrence Wright
I’m no Texan but I’m studying to become one.
Part of that education lies in visiting the sites and some rests in reading the literature. That, and chatting up the locals.
So my now completed recent trek to my native state — Thursday through Monday for Dad’s surgery — got off to a poor start when I checked my backpack to find that I’d left my Janis Joplin biography — I’m halfway through — back in my Nederland apartment. I remembered my toothbrush.
Not to worry. Lawrence Wright’s “God Save Texas” filled the weekend bill for my continuing cram course on the Lone Star State. Wright, who won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Looming Tower,” wrote his “Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State” and completed it for publication by Knopf this year.
I discovered it within a lean selection of Texas books at a Houston airport bookstore. It was the fastest 340 pages I’ve read in ages and it now rests on my bookshelf.
Wright, by trade a staff writer for The New Yorker, has lived and worked most of his life in Texas, much of that in Austin, and as such has been tasked with explaining his home state. He does admirable work.
Much of what he writes focuses on the state’s diversity. There is, he suggests, no one and indivisible Texas, which is understandable given its immensity. It’s a “red” state with “blue” cities, a state for oil roughnecks and computer programmers, where “the border” divides Texans among themselves while folks from Central America and Mexico simply scurry across. People work the land; people work at the space center.
Its influence in America, though, has become as outsized as its terrain. As Texas goes … well, that influence only grows.
That seems to worry Wright, especially as he gazes inward at the state’s navel. What can a state that’s intolerant at its edges offer to the nation as a whole for leadership?
Lots, it seems. For as strange as its politics might appear — who’s not politically strange in this era? — Texas has plenty of vision elsewhere. Sam Houston had it in rejecting the Confederacy, which got him out of politics. Wendy Russell Reves had it in donating her art collection to the Dallas Museum of Art. Stanley Marcus had it in welcoming people of all backgrounds into his store. Robert Rauschenberg had it using Port Arthur images “to give a new language to modern art.”
Moderate in his own politics, Wright’s assessments of Texas politicians are remarkably even-handed in this era of hyperbole. He comments kindly on the Bushes (always a plus, for me) and is fair to reasonable conservatives. Others suffer from Wright’s keyboard and probably with good cause.
Mostly, his anecdotes are delightful. His recollections of Ann Richards are treasures — “Richards wore designer suits but picked her teeth” — as was her lament over the removal of the crèche at the capitol. It was a shame, she told Molly Ivins, “because it’s about the only time we ever had three wise men in the capitol.”
His chapter, “The High Lonesome,” includes a trip to Wink to the Roy Orbison Museum. There, some of Orbison’s pain might be measured in that forsaken hamlet where as a plump, pale teen Orbison was treated “rotten dirty” by his classmates, one knowing local recalled.
Wright, for his part, remembered hearing Orbison’s voice as a junior high student in 1960 in this way:
“I had never heard anything exactly like it — Roy’s operatic three-octave voice on a country ballad, married to doo-wop, and infused with the existential solitude of the West Texas plain, an unhappy man with a thrilling and unmistakable voice, our Edith Piaf.”
I’d have paid the price of the book for that lone sentence. Everything else was bonus.
Ken Stickney is editor of The Port Arthur News.