The unexamined life

Perhaps the most incisive observation made by New Yorker journalist-author Lawrence Wright (The Looming Tower) in his memoir of growing up in Dallas, In the New World, was how oddly flattening it was, living in a place left mostly unexamined by great artists.

It partly was what prompted his memoir, Mr. Wright said -- which remains one of the more thoughtful books written about the city. When great authors write about your town, you see things about it you might never have on your own. You are given new understandings. I agree. Garry Wills' single line about Dallas in his biography of Jack Ruby -- "Dallas has always been a city on the make" -- has stuck with me, a perfectly phrased, telling insight. Mr. Wright looked around, and outside of the deluge of books about the Kennedy assassination, found very little of real depth written about Dallas. There are a handful of good or oddball novels about Dallas (Bryan Woolley's November 22, Edwin Shrake's Strange Peaches) but only one truly remarkable one, I'd argue, one that's likely to last: Don DeLillo's Libra, and it's not really "about" Dallas at all.

But there's something to be said about the other side: how the magnetic field of a great author bends everyone to his vision, how his books blind people to everything else about your hometown, particularly when they're made popular and commercial by Hollywood and tourism. Sarah Burnett grew up in Dorset -- "Thomas Hardy country" -- and writes for the Guardian that it was Hardy-Hardy-Hardy all the time:

"The pleasure was decidedly short-lived. Indeed, it very quickly turned to pain. ...

Under the Greenwood Tree, Far From the Madding Crowd, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Tess of the D'Urbevilles, Jude the Obscure - we read them all in the space of a year or two, each book more gloomy than the one before, the fatalism piling up chapter by chapter. You'll never escape from here, there's no point in trying, you're all doomed ... Just as Hardy finished half of the chapters in Tess with the words 'If only she'd not ...', most of us left our English classes thinking 'If only we'd not been born here ...' "

November 9, 2006 10:21 AM | | Comments (5)



There are other writers who use Dallas as a setting, exploring our fine city as a character. Two that come immediately to mind are Harry Hunsicker and Will Clarke.

McMurtry's other Houston novel is All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers.

Still, it seems that rural Texas, Austin, Fort Worth, and the border country have more novels than Houston or Dallas. It seems a shame in Houston, which is such a rich, eccentric place.

It's been several years since I've read one of David Lindsey's novels and I'd forgotten all about them. I had high hopes for him after finding his A Cold Mind back in 1983(I still have that first edition on my shelves someplace) but I eventually lost interest in his work.

Thanks for the heads-up about Antonya Nelson's work...I'll be sure to take a look at Some Fun.

Actually, Houston has fared better than Dallas to a degree. There are all of McMurtry's "city" novels -- not just Terms and Moving On, there's a third, I believe. There's also one of the finest 'true-crime' non-fiction novels ever written, Tommy Thompson's Blood and Money. His laconic, almost melancholy line about the city -- "There's so little reason for Houston" -- has stuck with me the way Wills' line about Dallas has.

I'm not a big fan of David Lindsey's thrillers, but they're better and better-known than anything comparable in Dallas. Houston has a much better literary scene than Dallas does -- thanks to the University of Houston's highly regarded MFA writing program (the Dallas area doesn't have a graduate creative writing program, really), Rice University's liberal arts rep and that literary foundation down there, In Print, which is pretty amazing when it comes to funding book stuff. Partly as a result, Houston has popped up in quite a few high-quality short stories -- from a couple of stories by Donald Barthelme (he grew up there, lived there while running the U of H program toward the end of his life) to an increasing number of stories by Antonya Nelson, who lives there half the year but will soon be moving their full-time (check out her new collection, Some Fun, at least two are set in Houston, if I recall correctly). Perhaps Nick Flynn, who teaches at the U of H and who wrote the wonderfully titled memoir, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City (set in Boston, unfortunately), will write about Houston.

And that's off the top of my head, and that's from someone who doesn't claim to have anything like an encyclopedic knowledge of Texas lit.

Thanks for writing.

Just you think that Houston has fared any better than Dallas in this regard? I can recall Larry McMurtry's "Moving On" and June Arnold's "Baby Houston" but no others come to mind at the moment other than McMurtry's "Terms of Endearment" and its sequel.

On the other hand, at least Houston and Dallas don't seem to have been thrashed the way that Joyce Carol Oates and Mary Karr have done that to the Beaumont-Port Arthur part of the state.


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