SEPTEMBER 11, 2018
TEXAS FAMOUSLY WIELDS an outsized influence on the content of the nation’s textbooks. And since the Texas State Board of Education is typically populated by appointees who think global warming is a hoax, evolution is a liberal plot, and slaves were happy, this arrangement tends to have a predictable effect on the national educational diet.
Is a similar dynamic at play in the world of narrative nonfiction? How else to explain the regular appearance of new titles purporting to explain Texas to the rest of the nation?
In recent memory, there was liberal New York Times columnist Gail Collins’s As Texas Goes…: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda, published in 2012. That was followed in 2013 by conservative Texas Monthly writer (now Houston Chronicle columnist) Erica Grieder’s Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right: What America Can Learn from the Strange Genius of Texas. On the academic front, in 2014 Princeton University Press published Robert Wuthnow’s Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State. That same year, out on the lunatic fringe, Regnery Publishing released Mark Davis’s Lone Star America: How Texas Can Save Our Country, with a foreword by Sean Hannity. And before the end of that year, Pegasus Books had released Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America, written by Texas journalist Richard Parker, who apparently had failed to read the preceding rash of titles explaining how it already had.
Is there really a market for these books? Non-Texans can’t possibly be so interested in a state not their own as to support a veritable cottage industry of explainers. And Texans — despite their stereotypical self-regard — hardly have reputations for self-reflection or, for that matter, reading.
Still, someone must be curious. In the case of Lawrence Wright’s God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State, published in April by Knopf, the originating curiosity belonged to David Remnick, Wright’s editor at The New Yorker, who, Wright acknowledges on the book’s final page, provided the book’s genesis when he “asked me to ‘explain Texas’ — I think because he couldn’t understand why I live here.”
Wright, of course, has made a career out of superlative reporting and writing about almost anything but Texas. He won a Pulitzer for The Looming Tower and a National Magazine Award for the New Yorker profile that led to the Scientology takedown Going Clear. He’s also written staged plays about the Camp David Accords and the love affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during the filming of Cleopatra.
In the context of that body of work, God Save Texas seems almost like a lark, or at least a pleasure. In fact, the book’s voice is less Lawrence Wright the expert on international terrorism and more Larry Wright the guy who moonlights on keyboards in an Austin-based blues band called WhoDo.
Larry Wright starts his tour of Texas casually enough with a bike ride through the gently rolling central Texas Hill Country in the company of his longtime buddy, fellow writer Stephen Harrigan (to whom he dedicates the book), thus introducing two traits that will follow readers to the end of God Save Texas’s 340 pages: we will be taking in a lot of scenery at a comfortable clip, and we will meet a considerable number of Larry’s friends.
When I was in fifth grade in Houston, where I was raised, I entered and won an essay contest on the theme “What I Like About Houston.” To the best of my recollection, what I liked best about Houston at the time were the Houston Rockets, the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center, and ZZ Top. My prize was a silver Sony wristwatch, awarded in a pre-game presentation on the pitcher’s mound of the then-still-impressive Houston Astrodome.
I mention this not to brag (though it remains a personal career highlight), but because I’m reminded of that essay every time I read a 300-page explainer about Texas and consider, again, the challenge of condensing a reasonably comprehensive and comprehensible take out of something as expansive as a very large and multitudinously diverse place. It’s a task for which potted histories are especially well suited, and yet there are few thing less rewarding to write, or read, than potted histories.
These sad parades of informative statistics and illuminating landmarks and curious factoids and insight-bearing personalities are virtually inescapable in a book like this, and there’s nothing for the reader to do but jump into the factoids about the age of the Alamo and the size of the Astrodome and wade on through.
But Wright’s potted histories are meatier than most, and his primary strategy for invigorating the cursed summaries is to personalize them, as much as possible, with his own experience and presence. He telegraphs this approach with an epigraph comprising a previously unpublished song containing the chorus “God save Texas.” The song is co-written by Wright and Texas boogie-woogie queen Marcia Ball.
The introductory bicycle-with-buddy tour — in an opening chapter titled “The Charms, Such as They Are” — kicks off a more or less geographically organized series of chapters profiling the state’s major industries, cities, and regions. And as a reader makes the rounds, it becomes apparent that Wright is up to something more ambitious than tour-guiding the uninitiated.
In other words, and despite superficial appearances, this isn’t actually a why-Texas-matters book. It’s a why-Lawrence-Wright-chooses-to-live-in-Texas book. The difference is crucial, because it removes the project’s jingoistic mandate to brag and justify, and replaces it with a much more complex and nuanced endeavor: conveying love of place. And love — to any narrative’s benefit — is a complicating emotion.
Texas was not love at first sight for Wright. In fact he found it — as many outsiders suspect, and many insiders can confirm — stultifyingly provincial. And so, like many Texans, he left when he could and set off to see the wider world. “I wanted to be someplace open, tolerant, cosmopolitan, and beautiful,” he writes. “I thought I would never come back. I turned into that pitiable figure: a self-hating Texan.”
His self-exile didn’t last, obviously, and in 1979, having seen something of the globe and written a debut novel, he found himself back in Texas, in the little German Hill Country town of Gruene, on assignment with Look magazine to write about the men who had walked on the moon, one of whom was then living nearby. Wright ended up spending an evening at Gruene Hall, the oldest dancehall in the state, watching a young George Strait open for Texas Swing revivalists Asleep at the Wheel and swimming in the comfort of familiar food and music. He and his wife were living in Atlanta at the time, but Texas’s charms, previously invisible, called him home.
When Texans feel compelled to defend their enlightened honor to outsiders, as they often do, they usually resort to clarifying that they live in Austin, the state capital.
Austin is where Wright made his home, much to David Remnick’s later bafflement, and Austin, more than any place else in the state, embodies the apparent paradoxes of contemporary Texas. It is, as every outsider and SXSW junketeer knows, the Live Music Capital of the World (a bona fide that gets complicated fast if you examine it too closely); the spiritual home of Willie Nelson, Matthew McConaughey (who has a cameo here), and Richard Linklater’s slackers; and magnetic north to generations of unstultifiable Texas kids who were too creative, too queer, or just too weird to thrive in the state’s hinterlands.
This “Keep Austin Weird” Austin is college students and drop-outs and skinny-dippers making their own slow way (even if, today, the basis of that mythos has been largely supplanted by tech bros and condos and people who practice yoga on the stand-up paddleboards that litter the dammed central-city pond known as Ladybird [Johnson] Lake).
Austin is also, of course, home to the Texas state government, which for decades has been a petri dish of the increasingly virulent know-nothing Republicanism that produced former governor and presidential candidate and current secretary of energy Rick Perry, not to mention current governor Greg Abbott (who’s joked about taking target practice on reporters), lieutenant governor Dan Patrick (who’s so far unsuccessfully pushed an infamous anti-trans “bathroom bill”), and a rogue’s gallery of lesser but no less confounding lights.
The state’s urban metropoli, meanwhile, are largely run by Democrats — a fact that tends to get lost in the national stereotype. Wright has interesting insights to offer about Kennedy-era Dallas’s role as a crucible of the sort of rancorous partisanship that has since infected the nation at scale, and thus a precursor to modern American extremity. And he’s clearly fond of Houston, as only someone who’s familiar with one of the most diverse and vibrant cities in the country is likely to be.
Houston’s charms (and they’re substantial) aren’t the sort to be easily gleaned. Wright quotes Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg on the point: “They say that Houston is a crappy place to visit but a wonderful place to live.” I have in fact been saying that for years, though I can’t recall where I first heard it. But Texans who know the turf will find many such pleasures of recognition in God Save Texas.
Houston also provides an excellent example of the insecurity that still plagues Texas, a not-so-former frontier that retains a newcomer’s defensive urge to overcompensate. Houston, as any self-boostering Houstonian (a role played here by socialite Lynn Wyatt) will jump to tell you, is no funky backwater. It’s rather a “world-class city.”
No argument here. Texas is nothing if not aspirational, but aspiration is built on a bedrock assumption of not yet being good enough, and here, as elsewhere, Wright’s subject intersects with his own sense of self. In a chapter titled “Culture, Explained,” Wright lays out a three-tiered theory of cultural development. Level One is foundational, primitive, and provincial. It’s the rootstock response to immediate circumstance, and in Texas it’s responsible for the state’s stereotypical attributes of aggression, innovation, and confidence. Level Two — coinciding, Wright writes, with the arrival of wealth — emerges when a culture begins to look outward to see what it can learn from the rest of the world. Level Two, in which much of Texas is still mired, according to Wright, is accompanied by insecurity and embarrassment (and usually veiled with compensating bluster — see self-descriptions as “world class”). Level Three describes a mature culture that, “having absorbed the sophistication of Level Two,” returns to its primitive origins to renew itself.
Wright’s excellent example of Level Three Texas is Beyoncé’s Lemonade album, which “absorbed the street talk and country music and the church choir of St. John’s United Methodist Church in Houston, and enlarged the tablet of popular music.” But it’s also hard not to notice how the schema tracks with Wright’s own trajectory as a Texan. He doesn’t put too fine a point on it, but it’s clear between the lines that God Save Texas is in many ways a biography of his own homecoming: confident, no longer embarrassed, with something new to contribute.
And what is that new thing? A warning. Or a plea.
Wright’s hard-won love of Texas — like any love that’s more than skin deep — is complicated by disappointment. In the state’s retrograde politics, its continuing racism, its perverse legislative war on women, its often appalling undermining of education, and its self-defeating embrace of the most xenophobic margins of the national immigration debate.
This is where it becomes unmistakable that God Save Texas, unlike its superficially similar bookshelf companions, isn’t an explainer at all. It has more in common with one of Wright’s, and the state’s, deepest literary touchstones: John Graves’s 1959 narrative Goodbye to a River, a writer and a book that Wright expressly admires.
Not only are God Save Texas’s chapters interspersed with echo-inducing Goodbye to a River–style maps and illustrations, but both books amount to protests.
Graves was protesting a proposed dam on the Brazos River, which he toured by canoe to document the foundational Texas that he feared would be drowned by ill-considered progress. Wright’s protest is more subtle than Graves’s. He is no firebrand partisan, but there’s no mistaking his belief that the traits that make Texas so nationally noteworthy are prescient of the conditions that turned a corrupt striver into the president of the United States.
But if God Save Texas is a plea, it’s the plea of someone who’s made his peace. Lawrence Wright is 71 now, and in a final chapter that’s largely about his choice of burial plot in the luminary-studded Texas State Cemetery, he writes, “I accept that my life has already been lived.” He has let readers know that he might, at various junctures, have liked to live other, perhaps more ambitious lives, in the power centers of Manhattan or Washington, DC, say, where “my life might have been larger, but it would have been counterfeit. I would not be home.”
God Save Texas is finally not so much a book about a state — though there is much to learn about this state in its pages — but a book about the myriad ways in which aspiration is tempered by circumstance, and dream lives subsumed by living. It’s a small point, perhaps, but well made. Why does Lawrence Wright live in Texas? Because Texas is where he’s made his life.
Seventh-generation Texan Brad Tyer was raised in Houston and has written for the Houston Chronicle, Houston Press, Dallas Morning News, and Texas Observer. He currently edits the Independent in Missoula, Montana.