10 Books that Capture the Ineffable Thing that Makes Texas Texas: A Reading List from Anton…
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I was almost born in Texas — my mom was eight months pregnant when she and my father left Houston for Memphis. As it was, I spent nearly all of my childhood vacations crisscrossing the state, staring at the absurd (Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo) and the stunning (the historic houses of River Oaks) from the backseat of my parents’ rental car. (I also spent a lot of time staring at the desert landscapes of West Texas, the Piney Woods of East Texas, and the astonishing traffic of greater Houston.)
Even though I’ve never lived in there, I know Texas. I know that the Dallas/Houston rivalry isn’t fake; I know that you can smell Hereford before you see it, because of the feedlots; I know that a one-fingered wave is the proper way to address other cars on sparsely populated highways. (I also know that announcing you are a vegetarian to your rancher great-uncles will earn you a lot of good-natured mockery.)
My new novel, The After Party, was a story that couldn’t be set anywhere but River Oaks; my characters could only have been born and raised in Texas. I don’t know that everything is bigger in Texas (though it’s a place that loves hugeness) but it is different. It’s its own place. Here are ten books that capture the ineffable thing that makes Texas Texas.
1. The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
I wish I could go back in time to when I had not read this book and reread it; it’s my favorite memoir. And one of my favorite books. This clear-eyed account of Karr’s hardscrabble childhood in Southeast Texas is heartbreaking and awful and tender all at once. The Liars’ Club was Mary’s father’s poker club, and it’s a fitting title for a book about the stories that adults tell children, and the ways children live forever in those fictions.
2. Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
I mean, of course. Nobody captures the literal massiveness of Texas like McMurtry. I read this book from the backseat of the aforementioned car while on one of the aforementioned relative-visiting trips, and seeing the landscape McMurtry described while reading his book was one of the most powerful reading experiences I’ve ever had. It wasn’t hard to shuttle myself back a hundred years and imagine myself crossing old Texas on my trusty steed…
3. The Son by Philipp Meyer
Another sweeping historical epic set in Texas, this one involves the kidnapping of a settler child by roving Comanches; oil that turns people astonishingly rich; and the Texas Rangers. It’s the stuff of potboilers, yes, but not in Meyer’s hands: the Texas he writes about makes you weep.
4. Giant by Edna Ferber
The famously thinly fictionalized account of eccentric oilman Glenn McCarthy’s life, who is Jett Rink in Ferber’s novel. James Dean went on to play Jett in the movie; Houston, who claimed McCarthy as one of their own, hated both the book and the film. Giant is a spectacular depiction of the rise and the fall of one of the great Texas oilmen.
5. Noon Wine by Katherine Anne Porter
A perfect novella, about a Texas rancher who loses control of his land to a hardworking Swede. Whether it’s rural Texas or Weimar Germany, nobody does place like Porter. And the final scene, which ends with this line — “That way he could work it” — is horrifyingly flawless.
6. That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx
Proulx is so marvelously good at capturing the spectacular weirdness of a place, here a Texas town called Woolybucket. And the dialect? It does not disappoint.
7. Friendswood by Rene Steinke
A small town in Texas is destroyed by a toxic leak. Told in multiple perspectives, the residents of Friendswood live, in various ways, in their own particular aftermath. There’s a lot of misery, but there’s hope, too.
8. Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, and A Dream by Buzz Bissinger
The origin story of Coach Taylor, and, besides that, a fascinating, shocking look at the role football plays in small-town America.
9. The Path to Power by Robert Caro
Could Lyndon B. Johnson have been born and raised anywhere besides Texas? Big and bawdy and powerful, with an unexpectedly sensitive side, the Lyndon Caro depicts for us here is fascinating and unforgettable.
10. “Lyndon” by David Foster Wallace
Technically a short story (though I would argue it’s a novella) most of it is set in D.C., not Texas, and Wallace reinvents Lyndon’s history: here he’s bisexual, and dying (anachronistically) of AIDS. Speculative handiwork aside, Wallace’s Lyndon is so real — urinating in a flower pot, doting on Lady Bird, at all times surrounded by people (he hated to be alone) — you feel like you’ve shaken his hand by the end of the story.