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Great Big Ol’ Texas
I confess I’ve never been to Texas, but they say everything’s bigger there (cue the anatomical innuendo). It’s safe to say many of the best Texas books are mighty big indeed. For instance, James Michener’s Texas is gigantic even by James Michener’s standards. This encyclopedic saga stretches from the days of the conquistadores to the heyday of TV’s Dallas, packing enough Texas history, trivia, and tropes to fuel the most insufferable know-it-all. I wouldn’t take the book to Texas, though: I understand they don’t like it there.
For Texans, Michener’s hefty best-seller has been overshadowed by another 1985 best-seller and one of the most enduringly loved Texas novels of all time. Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer-winning Lonesome Dove is that rare book I feel confident placing in the hands of almost any reader with the injunction to “just try it.” Whether we identify with the delightful Gus McCrae or his dour, stoic partner, Captain Call, we come to care deeply about these men. While the book eventually crosses the Red River out of Texas, it never stops regretting that leave-taking, and readers feel a similar pang upon turning the last page. Three subsequent sequels and prequels notwithstanding, what title could possibly fill the Texas-size hole left by this immensely satisfying yarn?
It turns out we may have James Michener to thank for the answer. After Michener moved to his ultimate home in Texas, he endowed a revered master’s creative writing program in Austin, which has matriculated an impressive roster of writers, including Kevin Powers, Brian Hart, James Hannaham, and Philipp Meyer, whose The Son is my new favorite great big ol’ Texas book. Encompassing more than 200 years of western history as recollected by two sons and one daughter of the indomitable McCullough clan, Meyer’s tale manages to combine the scope of Michener with the emotional truth of McMurtry and an audacious brilliance all his own. Meyer jumps between the accounts of Colonel Eli McCullough, an empire-building Texas Ranger whose steely disposition was forged and honed during his nightmarish abduction by Comanches as a child, to his guilt-ridden progressive son, Peter, horrified at the mountain of bodies upon which his own privilege is built, and the ruthless and entitled contemporary oil heiress Jeannie.
If Meyer’s epic stab at the Great American Novel feels a bit too involved for your liking, the great western writer Elmer Kelton goes over much of the same ground in his hugely entertaining—and much shorter—The Buckskin Line. Saved as a boy from abduction by the Comanches that killed his family, Rusty Shannon winds up joining a ragtag band of frontier justicers that will eventually coalesce into the famed Texas Rangers. Caught between secessionist rebels, Union forces, and the ever-present threat of Indians, Rusty faces a chancy, complicated coming-of-age, and we anxiously root for his success against some terrible odds.
Crime fans have plenty of great Texas titles to choose from, preeminent among them Joe Lansdale’s raucous, irreverent series featuring the unlikely duo of aging, white ex-hippie Hap Collins and gay, black Republican Leonard Pine. In the series debut, Savage Season, Hap’s radical ex-wife, Trudy, sweeps back into his life in search of some ill-gotten sunken treasure and winds up involving him in the worst possible way. Unexpected is the byword of this series, which continually hurtles the reader into surprising situations while diverting us with some of the best banter out there. The books are currently in production for a TV serial, so right now may be your last chance to read them with a mind’s-eye untainted by central casting.
For Texas noir, what could be better than Mitch Cullin’s unforgettably macabre verse novel Branches, in which Sheriff Branches has the most unsettling heart-to-heart with his stepson, Danny? It seems the boy is starting to take after his old man, which is in this case a very, very bad thing. Branches resolves to deal with this budding ne’er-do-well in the way he has handled all those other problematic souls whose bodies now keep Danny company at the bottom of a deep, dry well. Edgar Allan Poe meets Jim Thompson, with shiver-inducing results.
These columns often lead me to discover some obscure regional treasure, and this time that was John Graves’ classic Goodbye to a River. Learning that the Brazos River in North Texas was to be irrevocably dammed, Graves undertook a three-week canoe journey down the doomed waterway with only a dachshund for company. Peppered with bits of local history and custom, the poised, leisurely cadences of Graves’s unsentimental journey perfectly capture the harsh beauty of Texas, giving one the vivid sensation of having actually been in a very special and yet easily overlooked place. The story goes that Graves’ book kept most of those dams from being built. I may never have been to Texas, but I’ll never forget the day I spent three weeks there with John Graves.
Branches. By Mitch Cullin. 2000. Permanent Press, $24 (9781579620615).
The Buckskin Line. By Elmer Kelton. 1999. Forge, $6.99 (9780765360564).
Goodbye to a River. By John Graves. 1960. Vintage, $15.95 (9780375727788).Lonesome Dove. By Larry McMurtry. 1985. Simon & Schuster, $18.99 (9781439195260).
Savage Season. By Joe Lansdale. 1990. Vintage, $14.95 (9780307455383).
The Son. By Philipp Meyer. 2013. Ecco, $16.99 (9780062120403).
Texas. By James Michener. 1985. Dial, $18 (9780375761416).
David Wright is Reader Services’ Librarian, Seattle (WA) Public Library.
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