Fine new column, same old town

Tribeza is an Austin-based magazine that in July launched its handsome Dallas edition -- featuring a book/daddy column on culture and books and whatnot, a column that will be a regular feature, depending on inspiration, employment and remuneration.
Unfortunately, the publication doesn't have much Web presence yet. So in the interests of horn-tootling and because of the pressing need for everyone to read everything book/daddy writes, he is taking the liberty of attaching his first column here. It's about Dallas in print -- Dallas as a subject for fiction.

Novelists haven't really sunk their teeth into Dallas. Nibbled it, yes. But no one has ever taken a big bite out of Big D.  
Forty years ago, Larry McMurtry wrote that "with very few exceptions, no Texas novelist has drawn a novel of any distinction out of city experience." This will surely change soon, he believed. "For the moment, however, the point stands."  
The state's seemingly inescapable, indelible icons -- the oil well, ranch, small town, open road, borderline -- still say "country." Suburbs, the homeless, culture palaces, eateries so chic the meals are curated: Dallas has these in abundance. But can anyone distinguish our urban splendor and squalor from Pittsburgh's? And should a novelist care?  
Mr. McMurtry was right about many things when he wrote those remarks, found in his excellent 1968 essay collection, In a Narrow Grave. He argued, for instance, that because of Dallas' particular combination of wealth, violence and poverty, "no place in Texas is quite so tense and so tight."  
Yet he was wrong about the literature changing soon. Many fine short story writers have taken a crack at Texas' cities (Donald Barthelme, Antonya Nelson, Rick Bass), but by 1988, twenty years after that essay, so few serious novelists had paid attention to our little outpost on the prairie that journalist Lawrence Wright was moved to pen In the New World, his memoir of growing up here. The city is so unexamined, he wrote. When artists try to capture your town, you see more. It gains texture.  
A powerful author can shape a region's sense of itself. A century afterwards, we still see London through Charles Dickens' eyes, through Arthur Conan Doyle's eyes. The Los Angeles we know is partly a city of Raymond Chandler's imagination. Charles Baudelaire and Victor Hugo gave us gothic Paris, not the City of Light but the Paris of bohemia and dark alleys.  
To be sure, Dallas has had a smatttering of good or oddball novels (Bryan Woolley's November 22, Edwin Shrake's Strange Peaches). A. C. Gray, Doug Swanson and Harry Hunsicker have all set their thrillers hereabouts. Edgar Award-winner Carlton Stowers has written true crime books about the vicinity (Open Secrets). In his loopy spy spoof, Lord Vishnu's Love Handles, young wiseacre Will Clarke had fun mocking very mockable aspects of young Dallas.  
But so far, there's only one truly remarkable novel set here: Don DeLillo's Libra. And as an assassination novel it's about Dallas only tangentially, Dallas as a stand-in for America gone hard and mean, a role that Texas has often played in film and literature.  
In fact -- speaking of film -- around the world, the most formative impressions of the city remain the 26.6 seconds of the Zapruder film, and the distracting swamp monster they begot, the swamp of fiction, non-fiction and addled pop hybrids of the two, like Oliver Stone's JFK. Almost as influential have been the more than 300 episodes of the TV soap, Dallas, and trailing behind them, that pom-pom-pumping documentary, Debbie Does Dallas.  
What kind of city do these visual representations reveal? A Dallas of itchy political extremism and terrifying violence, of big-bling consumerism and good ol boys. Ruling over all are blonde sexpots and upbeat Cowboy boosters.  
Funny how that caricature is a fair summary of what, in the popular mind, constitutes Dallas. Is it accurate? Caricatures often are; otherwise, we wouldn't recognize them. Is it fair? Caricatures rarely are; that's not their job. For starters, there's nothing there about great Texas blues, racism, our super churches, the cotton industry or the strong women (Margo Jones, Margaret McDermott) who've shaped the city's culture.   
Of course, the argument has been made that writers simply haven't found us inspiring because there's so little depth beyond the Dallas caricature. President Bush's warm popularity around the country hasn't exactly helped in this. Conclusion: Expect more easy satires.  
Indeed, this spring in The New Yorker, Patricia Marx filed her Texas report after an in-depth investigation involving a couple shopping trips with the rich -- akin to explaining Manhattan after lunch with Donald Trump. The picture of the city -- philanthropist Angela Barrett threw a party in her "main closet, complete with 2 chandeliers, coffee table, ponyskin-upholstered chairs and cheetah rug" -- could have been taken from Frank Loesser's half-century old song, "Big D" ("and that spells Dallas where every home's a palace 'cause the settlers settle for no less").  
But then, in America, every city is at once itself and a parody of itself. It's unsurprising that Dallas' image has been glamorized and demonized by TV and film -- where surfaces rule. The task for the novelist is to find something essential about the place, something beyond the cartoons. He doesn't even have to like the place, really. Mr. McMurtry wasn't keen on Houston, either, but then he wrote his trilogy set there: Moving On, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers and Terms of Endearment.  
We'd be lucky to be so disliked.

July 30, 2007 4:19 PM | | Comments (2)



Thanks for the title. I confess I've never heard of "Afoot in a Field of Men."

There was a great little book of short stories that came out in the early early 1980s about life in bohemian Dallas called "Afoot in a Field of Men." The author Pat Ellis Taylor did a great job of capturing the scene on the crap end of Swiss Avenue in the summer of 1980 when the temp ran into the triple digits like forever. I was working at Shakespeare Books on Abrams at the time and those books kept jumping off the shelves. When the store moved to Lower Greenville she made a couple of personal appearances there, so I was told. I was already gone. They had second hand copies at Half Price when I checked last. I allus wondered what happened to her. The book was a total hoot!


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This page contains a single entry by book/daddy published on July 30, 2007 4:19 PM.

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