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 Jones’s book: the girl killed in a car wreck, the boy breaking his head on a barrel rim hiding beneath the surface of a lake he dives into, and the boy who falls out of the back of a truck only to be run over when his brother backs up to pick him up, all are tragedies worthy of Turgenev.
But most of all, Growing Up Dead in Texas is reminiscent of Tim O’Brien’s 1990 work The Things They Carried, a connection that Jones has acknowledged. Both books share the same resistance to generic pigeonholing. While The Things They Carried could be a war memoir, a collection of short stories, or a novel (or all three at once), Growing Up Dead in Texas could be a memoir, a mystery novel, or some combination thereof. Both feature a narrator who seems to share the name and life history of the author, but who may not be the author, and characters who the narrator takes pains to say are real but disguised people, but who may actually be fictional. In both works, there is doubt about what is real, yet at the same time a sense that even if every incident and character is made up, the book is still true. However, it is artistic truth, not some quotidian factual truth. It is as though Jones has followed the advice of Emily Dickinson to “Tell the Truth but tell it Slant.”
One cannot simply read Growing Up Dead in Texas. From the first sentence of the “Preface,” the book sets itself up to be reread. Like any good mystery — and in this book there are indeed several mysteries — clues are dropped that are seemingly unimportant details, but are upon a second reading blatantly obvious and important. In this book, everything counts. Even something as apparently insignificant as a Hot Wheels car placed by a tombstone turns out to play a major role.
At the center of the book is fire. Although I grew up in a cotton-producing area, I never thought much about how cotton burns until reading Jones’s descriptions. Cotton burns from the inside, so by the time the fire is obvious, it is too late to stop it. As described in the novel, “The thing about cotton, too, is that it doesn’t burn like paper, or wood or anything normal. Instead it smolders, roiling off pungent black smoke, like a stack of tires, the orange worms crawling there just under the black, but you can never step on them all.” This catalyst for the other tragedies in the book — an act of arson that destroys most of the town’s lifeblood in the form of a year’s cotton harvest — also exemplifies smoldering conflicts in both families and in small towns that start burning deep, causing irreparable damage before finally making it to the surface.
The events in Growing Up Dead in Texas reach all the way back to World War II and forward to the present when the narrator, named Stephen Graham Jones, is interviewing townspeople about the events surrounding the fire and its consequences. There are brief visits to the period when the narrator’s parents would have been teenagers, undated but probably the late 1960s, and to 1963, the time of the first cotton fire. However, the bulk of the story is set in 1985-86, when the central events of the book occur, when Jones — either the narrator or the author — would have been in sixth grade. Many of the principal characters involved in those central events are high school students. Thus, there is always the feeling that the events are recounted either by someone who was just old enough to know what was going on but not old enough to comprehend the causes and implications of everything that was going on or are recounted second-hand, twenty years after the events occurred. This narrative distance is not a bad thing, however; it adds to the feeling prevalent throughout the book that nothing is ever known in its entirety. Jones captures the feel of the mid-80s, especially as lived in small towns. Employing a technique common to writers of creative non-fiction, he anchors his story to a major world event which occupies the news, causing the final violent act of the book to go almost unnoticed, only rating ninety seconds on the local nightly news. For it is January 1986, and “In the hall between the gyms that day, what we’re all watching, some of us crying, because some secret part of us is still sure we can be astronauts too, is Challenger, spread out across the sky, falling, falling….” Thus, Jones connects his story with the “Where were you” event of his generation.
Growing Up Dead in Texas is a location specific book. But readers do not have to be from West Texas to get it. We come to know Greenwood and Lamesa, and they become more than just places to stop for gas on a road trip. They become like home. Readers gain this familiarity because Jones writes the truth, the truth of art that reaches to the heart of the thing itself. In talking about O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, Jones has said that it is story truth that matters, “that a lie isn’t a lie if it’s peeling back the skin of something that feels real. Something that is real.” And Growing Up Dead in Texas feels real.
Jones says that he has finally left West Texas. Let’s hope that this desertion is physical, not literary. Jones has set other novels in Texas, but this is his first return to his hometown, his first time to probe the rich material of his youth. The world he creates in Growing Up Dead in Texas is one that deserves further exploration and it would be truly a loss if he decided not to return.