To people from other parts of the state, West Texas is often simply a place to zoom through as quickly as possible on the way to the West Coast or the ski slopes of New Mexico or Colorado. The desolate land, with towns that may not be deserted but look like they should be, seems too flat to hold many surprises, and the largest cities like Midland, apparent mirage-like for miles before one is anywhere near them, reveal nothing much of interest and deserve no more than a quick gas stop. However, in his latest book, Stephen Graham Jones does for this area what Faulkner did for northwestern Mississippi, mythologizing a world of family and community secrets, gothic characters, and a landscape that grows in prominence until it assumes the role of main character. Jones, author of seven novels and two collections of short stories, grew up in West Texas. More specifically, he grew up in Greenwood, the setting for Growing Up Dead in Texas. Typical for that part of the world, his youth centered around trucks, guns, and basketball. After numerous suspensions from high school, he dropped out and earned a diploma from an alternative school. His life changed when he was awarded a full scholarship to his first year of college, where he discovered he loved to learn. Completing his B.A. in philosophy and English at Texas Tech, Jones went on to earn an M.A. at the University of North Texas, “never to teach, to be a professor, but to snag whatever craft tricks I could, smuggle them out to horror and scifi and fantasy and westerns, each of which I was in love with at the same time.” He completed a PhD in creative writing at Florida State in 1998, and after a back injury received moving refrigerators at a Sears store, began working in the library at Texas Tech. This job led to a teaching gig at Texas Tech, and now Jones is an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder. While proud of his Blackfoot heritage, he has no desire to be classified as a Native American writer. His work resists pigeonholing as well; his many novels and hundreds of short stories include examples of crime, horror, SF, and experimental fiction.
From the title, Growing Up Dead in Texas and in light of Jones’s previous work, readers might expect a horror story. What they get is something that is certainly gothic, but not horror in any strict sense of the term. Indeed, it is difficult to pin any particular genre label on this work. It claims to be based on truth, perhaps a sort of memoir; however, there is no indication that the events depicted in the book occurred in reality. It claims not to be a novel, yet it was written as a result of a student challenge to an assignment to write a novel in fifteen weeks (although Jones actually took only thirteen weeks), and despite the numerous times the text denies its novel status, the cover proclaims it is indeed a novel.
Although only 254 pages long, Growing Up Dead in Texas sprawls through time and place, with a large cast of characters whose names and relationships change from page to page. This scope and grandness align it with the Russian novels of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, a connection that in a strange way suits the West Texas setting where there are such Russian-inspired place names as Odessa, Marfa, and the Permian Basin. Like Russia, West Texas is a harsh, unforgiving land, peopled by individuals who have learned to survive in a brutal environment while seeing many of their generation swept away, seemingly at random. These casualties punctuate J...read more