A staff writer for the New Yorker and author of “The Looming Tower,” Lawrence Wright believes that Texas has a lot to answer for. His bill of particulars includes: a “locker room lust for guns” that belies rhetoric about self-protection and Second Amendment rights; the highest rate of uninsured people in the United States; a determination to cut off access to abortion and birth control; a policy of “deliberate indifference” to child welfare, hostility to gay and transgender people; and grotesquely gerrymandered election districts.
Along with its documentation of a dark and damaging political culture, Wright’s new book, “God Save Texas,” draws on the author’s experiences as a resident of Abilene, Dallas and Austin; his extraordinary journalistic skills; and the reflection of his friend, Stephen Harrigan (a novelist who is writing a history of Texas), to illuminate the diversity and dynamism of the Lone Star State.
Wright introduces readers to Houston, Dallas, Austin, the Permian Basin and Mexican border towns; the colorful, savvy and scary “sausage makers” in the state legislature; and the adventurous, cross-fertilizing “Level Two” creativity of I.M. Pei, the museums in Fort Worth and Stanley Marcus.
Wright sees a third level, in which Texas culture — having absorbed the sophistication of Level Two — “returns to its primitive origins to renew itself.” Beyoncé, the Wildlife Research Center in Austin, Alvin Ailey, Robert Rauschenberg, Larry McMurtry, Richard Linklater, Molly Ivins, and One Fifth, Chris Shepherd’s new restaurant, are on Wright’s Level Three List.
Friendliness, Wright claims, is “a sort of mandate in the state.” But then again, so are laws allowing hunters to shoot feral pigs with machine guns from helicopters and hot-air balloons. Texans, Wright adds, are beset by fears that if they “lose” their macho myths, they will “be crushed by ordinariness.”
On several occasions, Wright tells us, he considered leaving Texas. His decision to stay, he indicates, “feels more like inertia or insecurity,” and is accompanied by “a state of vague discontent,” an awareness of being an exile in his own culture.
That said, Wright (the proud recipient of a Texas Medal of Arts Award) recently indicated his willingness to be buried in the Texas State Cemetery (the Texas version of Arlington National Cemetery), alongside Stephen Austin, Barbara Jordan and other luminaries.
Apparently, however, Rick Perry, who had never forgotten Wright’s sarcastic remarks about the governor’s failure to show up for the Texas Book Festival, vetoed his “application.” Urged to reapply, with a new governor in office, Wright has not made up his mind. After all, “nothing says commitment like a burial plot.”
Nonetheless, Wright has concluded that Texas — raw, not yet fully formed, “growing in influence, dangerous and magnificent in its potential” — is and will remain his home.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
God Save Texas
By: Lawrence Wright.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 349 pages, $27.95.