Cowboy clichés choke Lone Star literature

WHEN I started the first grade I wore my boots -back then I didn’t say cowboy boots or cowboy hat since I thought there weren’t any other kinds. I had not yet, like Adam and Eve, looked down at those pointy boots and known my shame.

“Cowboy,” Arnie Oldham called me. Arnie was the sixth-grade bully who beat up first-graders. And his tone of voice changed the meaning of the word “cowboy” from an image I’d aspired to into a slur that heated my face with embarrassment. In my memory Arnie is 6 feet tall, weighs a good 200 pounds, has a bulb of a nose with tiny veins spreading like roots into his cheeks and is nearly bald. His bare head and one gold front tooth reflect the tall security light still burning early that morning above the blue, metal doors of the gym.

Of course, memory is not always reliable, and Arnie was probably a tad smaller than I recall. But I am sure about his shoes. Black, round-toed and polished, the only thing pointy about them was a dark arrowhead of dew on each big, round toe, aiming up at Arnie’s big body. The only time I remember Arnie looking small was when Coach Cox caught him on the girl’s side of the playground and carried him off by the back of his shirt collar, Ar-nie’s shiny shoes dancing just above the ground.

PREVAILING fashions (like prevailing winds) are subject to sudden shifts. Cowboy boots and anything and everything Texan are in vogue now, including books about Texas. That they are about Texas seems to be the most important thing about many of these books. We live in a time and place much dominated, it seems to me, by subject matter -the raw material a writer must transform if a good book is to take shape. There are scores of novels about southern politics, but there is only one All the King’s Men. Of course, All the King’s Men isn’t really about southern politics; like all good writing it transcends its surface details. Because I grew up in Texas, William Goyen meant more to me than did William Faulkner. Most writers write out of a compulsion to invent new worlds. That Goyen’s models -the places and people he used as his raw material – were familiar to me, gave his stories and novels an extraliterary dimension. I took personal pleasure in the recognition that he was celebrating many of the details of a place I also knew and loved. William Goyen’s subject is not Texas any more than Faulkner’s subject is Mississippi.

Poet and novelist R.G. Vliet, whose novels Rockspring and Solitudes make use of details of place to render a new world out of Texas settings, told me he writes about one particular region of Texas, the Edwards Plateau, because it has such unique physical features, flora and fauna that he can encompass it in his work. Listening to Vliet -who can tell you the popular brands of whiskey and hair oil and every kind of grass, tree, lizard and bird in the Edwards Plateau region in 1897 – I was reminded of a comment made by the photographer Diane Arbus. “When I first started making photographs,” she said, “I wanted to capture the universal in every photograph. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that the more specific you are, the more universal it becomes.” From the specifics of a writer’s experience (the details that sink in and leave their marks) come the images and textures of his invented world. Each of us has vivid experiences, imaginings, dreams. It is not enough simply to recall and record our experiences. A good writer must accurately weigh the value of things if a new world is to come into existence -must know what to leave out as well as what to include. And a good writer must control his material rather than letting the material, the subject matter, the details, take over. There is a popular, fashionable vision of Texas that is apparently marketable. This is the reader’s vision, not the writer’s, and it is as reassuring as good manners. Many readers read for immediate gratification; they want to be instantly amused, educated, titillated or improved. When writers write for these same reasons, the results are books designed to sell but not to last. To fashion the Texas I know into something merchantable is to misjudge the value of things and to create a caricature that satisfies the prevailing expectations of mass culture.

In his introduction to a recent anthology, Southwest Fiction, Max Apple reminds us that:

Fiction, by its very nature, is universal. Neither culture nor language is an ultimate barrier, and time, which mocks so much human effort, barely scars the story. The imagination is securely settled in the timeless, but the body lives in times and places. When those times and places are fictionally created, they are never obscure; they are rooted in truths beyond history.

One of the tests of good fiction is that it exists outside of history, outside of fashion, outside of space and time. When you float down the Brazos with John Graves in Goodbye to a River, you are exploring a country larger than Texas because Graves’ intelligent, lyrical voice transports you from the familiar details of a time and a place to a new, imagined world through which his river runs.

Each of us lives in a world of stereotypes; each of us inherits clichés. For a number of writers, part of the experience of living in Texas that can be left but not left out includes women in skintight pants and beehive hairdos, Cadillacs with steer horns on the hood, sexy waitresses with hearts of gold, slow-talking but deceptively smart oilmen in thousand-dollar suits and Lucchese boots, Bible-thumping evangelists immersing sinners in shallow rivers or screaming at them from late-night TV, Lone Star beer, pickup trucks and pedal steel guitars lamenting unrequited love. Miles and miles of Texas, wide open spaces -that’s the fashionable view of a state that is now 90 percent urban. Of course, all those clichés are still part of the picture, but what can the writer do to revitalize such depleted material? We are sometimes not aware that we are acting out clichés until it’s too late and we realize we’ve let what’s fashionable, what’s easily recognizable, shape our lives. The writer can’t afford to make that mistake.

Tone-the writer’s attitude toward both material and audience. Tone up, tone down, tone deaf, toneless, intone, monotone, color tone, muscle tone, high-toned, tone arm, tone control knob. What is the right tone of voice in which to speak? What does the writer have in his heart to speak? What has triggered the heart to demand a voice and how has the writer found the words? Will the book move us? Will it change our lives? Probably not unless the writer takes us places we’ve never been before, not unless we recognize what we’ve never seen before.

One of the events that triggered the words you are reading was the arrival of two packages at my house in Alabama. In the first were three books; a few days later a fourth arrived in the second package. All books were presented to me as, more or less, books about Texas.

IN THE FIRST package was a novel by William Brinkley which, since the finished book was not yet ready, arrived in bound galleys. The title, Texas Peeper, had been changed, a line drawn through Texas, to simply. Peeper. (Perhaps this is a good sign, a sign that New York publishers think books about Texas are losing some of their popularity.) Peeper is a tedious, poorly paced story about a peeping Tom in the Rio Grande Valley who leaves gifts on his victims’ windowsills and creates a furor in Martha, Texas. Evidence soon indicates that he is someone with detailed knowledge of the town, probably one of its most respected citizens. Daniel Squire Baxter, a big-city newspaperman, has bought the Clarion and retired to Martha, close to the Gulf and his beloved boat on which he spends much of his time. There is a stereotypical Texas Aggie ex, now Martha’s chief of police, named Freight Train Flowers. (Freight Train earned the name, naturally, for singlehandedly winning the Thanksgiving Day game with Texas years earlier.) And there is a female journalism student from SMU working for Baxter in order to learn the newspaper business. She irritates him with her pushy style and by refusing to wear dresses. (By the end of the story, of course, Baxter falls in love with her.)

The most interesting aspect of the novel is its shifting point of view: The story is narrated by Baxter and the unidentified peeper -although the sections in the peeper’s voice sound much the same as those in Baxter’s voice, which suggests, perhaps, that Baxter is the peeper. Peeper is subtitled A Comedy, but I’m still not convinced. Much of the novel seems merely an excuse for florid, euphemistic descriptions of what the peeper sees: “that most secret and softest of all woman’s flesh.. .stroked by a blush of hair,” “a moment’s view of coaxing pearl orbs,” “the strawberry patch…like a flower resting there.” If there is a tone that can allow a writer to get away with language that precious, Brinkley hasn’t discovered it. When language fails in this way, it results in unintentional self-parody.

THE SECOND BOOK in the first package came with several sheets of publicity called “Early Raves” telling me that Baja Oklahoma is a very funny comic parody. There was also an “original article” by Dan Jenkins called “Me and Willie and Baja Oklahoma” in which the author and Willie Nelson sit in a New York bar and exchange one-liners about Jenkins’ novel. Willie asks, “What’s it about, again?” and Jenkins answers, “Aw, it’s about 300 pages, more or less.” If that strikes you as good comic parody, you’ll love Baja Oklahoma, in which nearly every cliché Jenkins inherited from his background in Fort Worth is paraded through Herb’s Café. You’ll meet:

Juanita Hutchins, the good-looking, twice-married, long-suffering, songwrit-ing waitress who serves drinks and quips to the habitués of Herb’s until she gets her big break on stage with Willie and becomes a country star.

Slock Henderson, the middle-aged, steady, decent Exxon dealer who becomes Juanita’s boyfriend and manager.

Lonnie Slocum, “the leader of Dog Track Gravy, a Western band not widely known outside of high school gymnasiums and Holiday Inns.”

Candy, Juanita’s daughter, “a luscious thing and very sweet, but rather adventurous, who had gone to an Oregon commune on the back of a Honda with a skeleton who braided his hair.”

Dove Christian, Candy’s boyfriend, a cocaine dealer who has taken Candy to Aspen in his Mark IV.

Grace, Juanita’s hypochondriac mama whom Juanita visits in the nursing home.

The South Side B&PWs (Business and Professional Women) who “all had powder-blue beehives” and “red daquiris” that made them look “like campaign posters.”

Beecher Perry, the rich oilman of “Bookman-Perry Oil & Gas with offices in Fort Worth, Houston, Midland, London, Aberdeen, Cairo, Peking and Tampico.”

Tina Busher, Beecher’s current extramarital thing whose “homegrowns” are “bursting out of a message T-shirt” and whose jeans fit so tightly that “medical science was bound to determine eventually that jeans worn as snugly as Tina’s rendered irreparable damage to the cervix.”

In a culture dominated by subject matter (a culture in which novels are presented as being primarily about Texas), writers use a stylized approach in an effort to resurrect exhausted material. Good parody and good satire approach literary criticism; emphasize form over content, style over material. Baja Oklahoma, though it has entertaining moments, lacks sufficient irony and wit to breathe life into these clichés. Jenkins emphasizes material over style; and the material, as presented, is too cute, too predictable.

THE LAST BOOK I read in the first package was Bill Porterfield’s Texas Rhapsody. These vignettes, subtitled Memories of a Native Son, are not ostensible fiction; they are first-person recollections of growing up and living in Texas. The book is peopled with Porterfield’s family and friends and the characters he has run across as a reporter for the Dallas Times Herald, where many of these pieces first appeared.

Porterfield is at his best when he’s describing the physical world through which he has moved -the dusty, dolorous heat; the Crystal Ball Nite Club; Widow Schubert’s empty new house; Deacon Sass-mouth Jesse Crée; Emil Schnittker; Bois d’Arc Sam. The pieces that fail are those in which Porterfield moves from the concrete to the abstract, as in “Cecilia and the Confessions of a Male Chauvinist,” in which he lets fashionable notions about the issue of feminism take over his writing. The result is rambling and confused.

One of the best pieces, “Where Have You Gone Joe DiMaggio? A Nation Waits,” describes a trip he made with his family in the summer of 1941 from Norias, Texas, to Cleveland, Ohio, in a Terraplane Hudson (“before the Nazis and Japs and gas rationing got us and the rest of the country”) to see a major-league ball game and watch DiMaggio keep a hitting streak alive. They have no car radio so they stop at filling stations along the way to keep up with DiMaggio’s hitting. This recollection is a metaphor for Porterfield’s childhood, the impulsive trip to see DiMaggio capturing the sweet recklessness and innocent hopefulness of growing up. And when they finally make the ball game in Cleveland, something of the sadness and loss of being grown up is reveale

Texas Rhapsody, a collection of memories, becomes autobiographical. The things Porterfield remembers, the memories he selects to include and the way he shapes and transforms them into stories, indicate a compassionate sensibility. Some of these pieces are sentimental, some are overwritten, but many ring true. Porter-field takes a line from Willa Cather for the epigraph to one section of the book: “Sometimes a neighbor whom we have disliked a lifetime for his arrogance and conceit lets fall a single, commonplace remark that shows us another side, another man, really; a man uncertain and puzzled, and in the dark like ourselves.” At his best Porterfield shows us this side of his characters and, occasionally, of himself as he speaks of the

BY ITSELF, in the second package that I received, was Beverly Lowry’s new novel, Daddy’s Girl. I had read Lowry’s first two novels, Come Back, Lolly Ray and Emma Blue, so I knew how well she writes; I’d seen the wonders she works with words, and I was looking forward to Daddy’s Girl. Lowry’s first two novels are set in Mississippi, where she grew up, but Daddy’s Girl is set for the most part in Post Oak inside the Loop in Houston. Sue Shannon Stovall Muffaletta, in her mid-30s, recently widowed, mother of three, team father for the Little League; alias M.S. Sue, country songwriter; alias June Day, a picture in “tight swingy dress and strappy red shoes,” local country singer of songs by M.S. Sue, performer at the Broken Spoke, Grits Casserole or Kikker Kuntry Ballroom – tells the entire story. Sue’s daddy, Jim Stovall -alias Chunk, ex-pro football running back; alias Big, storyteller, poet, super-salesman of Simply Good frozen yogurt -also speaks. Big is larger than life, but, as big as he is, touches and joins the reader’s life. Through entries in her journal, Sue’s mother, Linda, writer of erotic fantasy stories (who lives with a young pretty boy named Joseph), tells part of the story. There are stories inside stories inside stories and uniquely different voices to tell every one of them.

Here too are the clichés and stereotypes, the surface details of the places Lowry uses (7-Elevens, Mother Rancho’s Ho-Maid Salads, Loop 610, Jack-in-the-Box hamburgers, Ero-Fantasy Digest, Brazos Belle gardenias, an optician’s office on I-10 called Eye Ten, Astroworld, Signs of the Zodiac apartment city and Kikker Kuntry Ballroom). Because of the nature of this material, Lowry’s stance is necessarily ambivalent; her compassion is balanced with irony. Lowry reflects this ambivalence through rhetorical devices, including the use of multiple voices, Big’s stories-ALUCARD (Dracula spelled backwards), NEITSNEKNARF and NAMFLOW; M.S. Sue’s song lyrics; the careful use of rhythm and repetition, of italics and space, to weave the hot-beat and dragged-out moments of the country song motif into the fabric of the narrative.

The book sings, it croons, swings, dips and turns, taps with a high-heeled shoe or slides with a pedal steel across the page. There are refrains, riffs, plays on words, surprises. And a lot of it is just for fun. Daddy’s Girl is funny, laughing-out-loud fun to read. And all these devices throw a rhetorical coloring over the novel that creates the distance within which Lowry’s compassion can be felt, without that compassion deteriorating into sentimentality or melodrama. It is this distance that helps constitute Lowry’s style, and it is her style that shapes familiar raw material (all those surface details, including the clichés) into a created, new world rather than just an imitation of a familiar world. It is important to recognize that the reader moves across this distance Lowry creates in both directions – at times away from the world of her novel and at times right up close. The fact that Daddy’s Girl is funny and playful never detracts from its message. Lowry’s tone allows her to reveal what is funny and what is sad without being condescending or exaggeratedly emotional.

Daddy’s Girl, though much of it takes place in contemporary Houston, is not confined to any particular geographic location. Books that simply imitate and reaffirm the familiar – books written to reflect fashion in much the same way that boots may be designed – will come in and out of vogue. While we may live in Texas, love Texas, set our fictions in Texas and come under the spell Henry James was talking about when he described a place as having “a mystic meaning to give out,” the only place that lasting fiction can inhabit is a place shaped by language.


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