illustration by Mark Ross

The Great Dallas Novel

A search for the one great book that explains just exactly who the hell we think we are.

It was a moment a lot of people here thought they’d never live to see. On May 1, Terry Southern, the defining postwar American satirist and hipster saint, the guy who wrote Candy, Dr. Strangelove, and Easy Rider, finally returned to his native Dallas. He was welcomed back with an official Terry Southern Day proclamation, signed by the mayor, recognizing “that Terry captured a unique time and place in his Texas fiction—put out for the world to see—in such stories as ‘Red-Dirt Marijuana’ ” and others.

It no longer mattered that just about everything Southern had ever written had been a jab in the eye at everything people here considered good and decent. It was all a long time ago. Now he was just a local boy who had made good, gained great, if erratic, literary fame, and brought glory back to Dallas.

There was something bittersweet about his return. It was almost like when, after years of lying somewhere on foreign soil, the remains of a GI get returned home for burial. You’re sad because his life was cut short, but you’re still glad. At least he’s come home.

Nobody ever thinks of Terry Southern as a WWII GI, but to Dallas that’s what he was. He grew up in Oak Cliff, attended Sunset High School and then SMU. He quit after two years, enlisted in the U.S. Army, got commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant, marched off to war, and, like a lot of guys who went, never came back home.

Actually, he did come back once in 1978, but it hardly counts because he was on tour with the Rolling Stones, and, as the old song goes, he was probably stoned and missed it. Of course, he didn’t really come back this time either. Terry Southern died in 1995, hounded to his grave by the IRS and abandoned by the friends who’d gotten rich off him. What came back to Dallas on May 1 was merely his ghost, accompanied by his son, who was here trying to raise money for a documentary about his father and keep the memory of him from fading
away completely.

But what if, instead of going to Paris and New York and London and hanging out with the cultural luminaries of the day, Southern had simply come home after the war, finished up his degree at SMU, and then went to work at the Morning News or Times Herald? What if, instead of writing about sex-crazed Air Force generals and their precious bodily fluids, Southern had written about the sex and drugs and political insanity that went on here as the town cranked up its frenzied hatred in time for the Kennedy assassination? It was, after all, a pivotal moment in our postwar history. He could have been here for it. With his vicious wit and finely honed sense of absurdity, he’d have been the man for the job. Hell, he might even have written The Great Dallas Novel.

Of course, some of the best stuff Southern wrote was informed by his time here. Stanley Kubrick set out to make a thriller when he bought the rights to Peter George’s book Red Alert. When he changed his mind and decided to film a black comedy, he brought in Terry Southern to co-write the script. The dialogue in Dr. Strangelove, especially right-wing nut bag General Jack D. Ripper’s ravings about communist infiltration and precious bodily fluids, was pure Dallas. When the B-52 prepares to attack a Soviet target, its commander, Slim Pickens as Major T.J. “King” Kong, delivers an homage, of a sort, to Dallas: “Survival kit contents check. In them you will find: one forty-five caliber automatic; two boxes of ammunition; four days’ concentrated emergency rations; one drug issue containing antibiotics, morphine, vitamin pills, pep pills, sleeping pills, tranquilizer pills; one miniature combination Russian phrase book and Bible; one hundred dollars in rubles; one hundred dollars in gold; nine packs of chewing gum; one issue of prophylactics; three lipsticks; three pairs of nylon stockings. Shoot, a fella could have a pretty good weekend in Dallas with all that stuff.” At least that was how Southern originally wrote it and how Kubrick filmed it. But then Kennedy got shot, and, at the last minute, the studio had Vegas dubbed over Dallas.

But while Southern’s writing was informed by his hometown, he never did write The Great Dallas Novel. We are bereft. Los Angeles has Raymond Chandler. San Francisco has Jack London, Dashiell Hammett, Armistead Maupin, and dozens of others. Chicago has The Adventures of Augie March and the greatest celebratory opening line from any modern novel: “I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.” Why doesn’t Dallas have its own Augie? There is certainly no shortage of grist. There ought to be a work of fiction that reflects and defines this particular place, a work you read and you find yourself saying, Yes, this is my town they’re talking about, the place that, for better and worse, I brag about when I’m someplace far away.

To my mind, The Great Dallas Novel would have to reflect the defining characteristics of the city. There’s a saying the Brits have about there being nothing quite as formidable as “a Scotsman on the make.” They use it to describe anyone who has ambition, whether or not he happens to be Scottish. Certainly that saying applies to the men who’ve made Dallas their home. Unlike most large cities in the world, which were situated on some defining geographical feature, Dallas was based on a premise. John Neely Bryan, its founder, chose an arbitrary spot on the Texas prairie next to a river that, just like it is today, was only intermittently there. But Bryan was a promoter, and the men he convinced to settle here were all similarly inclined.

Dallas attracted men of commerce who weren’t interested in much besides that. They loved God, certainly, but if they loved money more, no one ever called them on it. As for arts and culture and things of the mind, they had no value unless to demonstrate the city’s greatness and thereby attract more business. They weren’t so much anti-intellectual as they were nonintellectual. Oh, sure, you can name exceptions. Everette DeGolyer, Stanley Marcus, Raymond Nasher. But the exceptions prove the rule. Rather than geography, these people have defined us over the years. Think of the wildcatter H.L. Hunt, the richest man in America at one point, who crawled around his office on his knees for exercise. Heck, think of that grand promoter Jerry Jones. He’s from Arkansas, but it doesn’t get any more Dallas than putting world-class art in a billion-dollar football stadium—built in a suburb, no less. In that sense, the personality of the city has changed remarkably little in the last 150 years. The other thing about Dallas is that, while it paints itself as straight-laced and God-fearing, there is lots of turbulence just below the surface. Once you know where to go, the town is wide open. The Great Dallas Novel would lay it all bare.

There are a number of minor works that have come out in recent years that deserve mention but can quickly be dismissed. They’re readable books, each showing a good feel for the city. But none shows enough ambition to qualify as our good book.

In 1983, Pat Ellis Taylor (now Pat Littledog) made a brief splash on the Dallas literary scene with Afoot in a Field of Men, a collection of funny and poignant short stories about her struggle to be a writer while hanging on by her fingernails in the low-rent, roach-infested bohemia of Gaston Avenue. Day after day, Taylor, the narrator and author, tells of the endless problems, the little joys, the strange people. Her neighbors are Mexicans, Bible students, redneck single mothers with bad boyfriends. Taylor works temp jobs at offices. Her teenage son works at a carwash, and her husband, a failed English professor, works in warehouses and loading docks. While he is angry about the direction his life has taken, Taylor faces each day with the same gritty, good-humored stoicism as her East Texas settler ancestors.

Ben Fountain is a former real estate lawyer whose highly acclaimed collection of short stories, Brief Encounters With Che Guevara, led Malcolm Gladwell to say in The New Yorker that Fountain had taken “the literary world by storm at the age of 48.” Since then, he has written a novel about Dallas based in part on his own business experience, which, from the way he describes it, might just be a contender for the title of The Great Dallas Novel. For the time being, though, it has been shelved. Next year, Fountain will have a different book about the city. “Dallas,” he told me, “is really interesting because it is the most American city. Here, money, commerce, and business reign supreme, and nobody makes any apology for it. There is nothing else to do here but make money. The mainstream mindset here used to be based on a very narrow range of experiences and very rigid ideologies, and there is very little awareness that there might be different ways of living.”

Most of the current fiction coming out of Dallas is genre. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Dallas Morning News reporter Doug Swanson put out a series of gritty crime novels, starting with Big Town, followed by four more over the next six years. They were all well received, but then he stopped, and they have all since gone out of print. Now, 10 years later, Swanson says he’s finished the draft of another novel but has put it aside to concentrate on a nonfiction book about 1940s Dallas crime figure Benny Binion.

A better-known Dallas crime writer is Harry Hunsicker, whose 2005 novel, Still River, was quickly followed by The Next Time You Die and Crosshairs. All feature his Gulf War veteran turned private investigator, Lee Henry Oswald. Like Swanson, Hunsicker writes gritty, action-filled stories that make good use of Dallas as a setting.


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