The Texas Presidents: LBJ, GHWB, and GWB.EXPAND
The Texas Presidents: LBJ, GHWB, and GWB.
Illustration by David Danz

Pulitzer-Prize Winning Texan Looks at Texas...and It's Not All Wright

God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State
By Lawrence Wright
368 pp.
$27.95
Alfred A. Knopf

The writing of Lawrence Wright is all over the map. Novelist. Playwright. Screenwriter. Journalist. A correspondent for both Texas Monthly and The New Yorker. And author of Important Tomes on Israel & Egypt during the Carter administration, the Church of Scientology and Al Qaeda & 9/11. The book on that last topic, The Looming Tower, also won him the Pulitzer Prize.

His latest book is similarly all over the map – quite literally – in this meditation on his home state of Texas. Part history, part memoir, and part rumination on the state’s past, present, and future, Wright has managed to sew together a patchwork quilt of a narrative into a substantive State of the state.

Of course, Houston is a prominent character in the narrative, and even gets its own chapter (the unimaginatively titled – what else? – “Houston, We Have a Problem”). Wright weaves in the history of the Allen Brothers, the Astrodome, legendary figures in politics, sports, and the arts from Roy Hofheinz to George Mitchell to Astros pitchers Nolan Ryan and J.R. Richard.

And he hits all the CVB talking points (most ethnically diverse city, Medical Center, huge culinary culture, better-than-you’d-think museums). Wright also owns up to his own prejudices: growing up in Dallas, he viewed Houston as the blue-collar cousin you’d visit for country music and barbecue, and not much else.

But Wright’s take on Houston really picks up heft and steam tracking the city’s suffering from, response to, recovery of Hurricane Harvey. It’s something he had firsthand knowledge of, given he was in the city to oversee the world premiere of his play on the love affair between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Cleo.

Harvey postponed that premiere date (it’s actually running right now at the Alley Theatre), but his journey in the soaked and sodden seats of the Alley is memorable, and his admiration for the response of the business community and the makeshift shelter at the George R. Brown is evident. But still…

“Harvey calls into question the future of Houston,” he writes. “It has endured more flooding over the past 40 years than any other city in America, and yet it continues to grow by 400 people a day, building 40,000 houses a year to accommodate the influx, many of them in the floodplain, and continually paving over the grassland prairie that sponged up the deluges of the past. Harvey made the cost of the absence of zoning shockingly clear.”

Local bold face names Mayor Sylvester Turner, Judge Ed Emmett, former Alley Theatre Artistic Director Gregory Boyd, and superstar chef Chris Shepherd also encounter Wright in the city.

But Wright is at his most trenchant when the text turns to politics and the eternal struggles of Blue State/Red State Texans. Which he divides neatly into two radio-friendly categories.

“FM Texas is the silky voice of city dwellers in the kingdom of NPR. It is progressive, blue, reasonable, secular, and smug – almost like California. AM Texas speaks to the suburbs and the rural areas – Trumpland. It’s endless bluster and endless ads. Paranoia and piety are the main items on the menu.”

Among the many Houstonians appearing is the (unnamed) suburban mother who, upon finding out that her 7-year-old son “voted” for Trump in a school election, gave him a suitcase and told him to leave the house. She then videoed the hysterically crying child going out the front door – probably for her social media – and told him coldly “Bye, Donald Trump Lover.”

There’s so much more packed into this book: Texas movie mythology, guns, the UT Tower sniper and Luby’s/Baptist Church shooters, the Alamo, oil industry and fracking, the Border, Mexico (“We are like a couple still living next door to each other after a particularly bitter divorce”), Dallas, Austin, JFK, LBJ, Both Bushes Ann Richards, and Rick Perry. Houston is further repped by figures as disparate politically as Rep. Carol Alvarado and ultra-right mover and shaker Dr. Steven Hotze.

Things get very contemporary toward the end when Wright talks about the recent follies of the Texas legislature with SB 4 (the “sanctuary cities” bill) and SB .6 (the “bathroom” bill). He pits the wildly disparate views of two top Republicans – the far, far right Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and modern Speaker of the House Joe Straus almost in Godzilla vs. King Kong terms. And he makes no play at objectivity (let’s just say he’s not fond of the former KHOU sports anchor).

In the end, Lawrence Wright loves parts of Texas, and loathes others. That’s pretty much to be expected of any resident of the Lone Star State. But in this compelling and insightful potpourri of history, encounters, and observations, one thing’s clear. It’s not the divine intervention of the book’s title that will help the state. It’s kind of up to us.

Lawrence Wright will sign and talk about God Save Texas April 30, 7 p.m, hosted by the Brazos Bookstore at United Methodist Church, 5501 S. Main. Tickets are $27.95 and include a copy of the book. Call 713-523-0701 or visit brazosbookstore.com

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