Lawrence Wright has taken on plenty of complex and controversial topics.
The New Yorker staff writer and author of nine previous books won a Pulitzer Prize for The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 and was a finalist for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle prize for Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. (Both books became TV series.)
His new book takes on another thorny subject, but the point of view is more personal in God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State.
Why Texas? For one thing, it’s where Wright lives. His family moved to Dallas when he was a boy; he high-tailed it out of the state when he grew up but returned almost four decades ago and has lived in Austin ever since.
That has not made him a cheerleader. As he writes in the book’s first chapter, "I think Texas has nurtured an immature political culture that has done terrible damage to the state and to the nation. Because Texas is a part of almost everything in modern America — the South, the West, the plains, Hispanic and immigrant communities, the border, the divide between the rural areas and the cities — what happens here tends to disproportionately affect the rest of the nation. Illinois and New Jersey may be more corrupt, Kansas and Louisiana more dysfunctional, but they don’t bear the responsibility of being the future."
That Texas represents the nation’s future is a reasonable argument — but that future might not be what you think. Wright’s eclectic approach to the state combines his personal experiences with Texas history, politics, culture and current events, and the result is a portrait that is always complicated and often surprising. For every Texas stereotype Wright explores, there’s something that blows it up.
Sometimes the stereotypes are self-contradictory, like the "superpatriotism combined with defiance of all government authority" that Wright includes in his description of the typical Texan.
Others lead to unintended consequences, like the Texas obsession with all things bigger: "Hunters," he writes, "decided to breed Russian boars with the feral hogs that are a remnant of the Spanish colonization, and now we’ve got more than two million of these beasts, each weighing twice as much as a white-tailed deer. ... They can run twenty-five miles per hour and smell odors seven miles away."
Even the icons of Texas history bear internal contradictions. Wright begins the book with a visit, accompanied by his longtime friend, novelist Steve Harrigan, to the Alamo.
He recalls wearing a Davy Crockett cap as a kid, when the 1960 movie The Alamo "was widely read as a rallying cry for the right-wing politics that (John) Wayne trumpeted, with the Mexicans serving as stand-ins for the forces of international communism; in Texas, however, The Alamo was our creation myth." He notes that the 1836 battle there, often glorified as a fight for freedom, was in fact a defense of slavery in Texas.
Wright gives chapters to several of the state’s biggest cities. "Houston, We Have a Problem" outlines the city’s history, including the outlandish biography of its founder and namesake, but focuses on its present.
"Houston is the only major city in America without zoning laws," Wright tells us. "The absence of zoning is an artifact of the anticommunist hysteria of the 1950s and 1960s, when zoning was viewed as a communist plot." That lack of zoning led both to some of the most disastrous effects of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and, unexpectedly, to less segregation of neighborhoods than in many major cities.
The city’s demographics are another example of Texas’ status as predictor of the nation’s future: "Houston grew by 35 percent between 2000 and 2013, an astounding figure for an already mature city. ... One out of four Houstonians is foreign born, and no single racial or ethnic group constitutes a majority." Texas is one of four states that are already majority-minority — that is, its non-Hispanic white population is, at 42 percent, less than half of the total.
But, thanks to aggressive gerrymandering and enormous amounts of money, Texas politics are dominated by white men, especially conservative Christian ones. Wright spends several chapters on them, including a hair-raising insider account of a recent session of the Legislature that reflects the bitter divide inside the Republican Party between business-oriented conservatives and culture warriors — another glimpse of the future.
The book is filled with larger-than-life Texas characters: Willie Nelson and Ann Richards, Alex Jones and Charles Whitman. Wright visits quirky little towns like Marfa and Terlingua and offers brief seminars on Austin’s amazing music scene and Texas’ energy-based economy — also shifting to the future as fracking replaces oil wells.
Wright addresses, in various ways, the state’s border with Mexico. More than half of the U.S.-Mexico border runs through Texas, and from 1821 to 1836 Texas was under Mexican rule. The cultures, economies, politics and people on both sides of the border are inextricably entwined.
Wright is no open-border advocate: "I have spent much of my professional life writing about terrorism. I believe in secure borders." But he writes with insight about how very complex the situation is, and how unlikely it is to be solved by simple ideas like walls.
Not least among the problems is that the border itself can move, as Wright notes when he visits a historic fort that originally was "on the bank of the Rio Grande, which is now a mile away — another problem with building a wall along the Texas border, which is defined by the deepest channel of the river."
The future, like that border, is always a moving target, but God Save Texas is a fascinating look ahead through the lens of a singular state.
Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.