Sunday, March 08, 2009

Texas novels

Commenting on my list of the fifty greatest English-language novels since Dickens and Eliot, Pat Burns asks if I “have a list of top Texas novels.” You must understand, first, that I am not a Texan. I have merely lived in Texas longer than I have lived anywhere else. What is more, I have passed my Texas life in two of the least Texan milieux—academe and Orthodox Judaism. Even if that were not true, though, my love and appreciation for Texas would have been whipped up by novels. Here are ten.

Edward Anderson, Thieves Like Us (New York: Stokes, 1937). Three cons bust out of prison in Oklahoma and head to Mexico, robbing banks across Texas along the way. Basis of films by Nicholas Ray (1949) and Robert Altman (1974). Reprinted in the Library of America’s Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 40s.

Billy Lee Brammer, The Gay Place (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961). A trilogy of short novels about a Texas politician who suspiciously resembles Lyndon B. Johnson, by a Texas Observer reporter who covered him. One of the few good works of American political fiction.

Max Crawford, Lords of the Plain (New York: Atheneum, 1985). A native of the llano estacado whose first novel, Waltz across Texas (1975), was set on a ranch near Lubbock, Crawford narrates the Comanche wars of the 1870s from the perspective of a U.S. Army captain. Decidedly not Dances with Wolves.

William Goyen, House of Breath (New York: Random House, 1950). A self-acknowledged follower of Truman Capote (“whose genius I respect”), Carson McCullers (“a good friend”), and Tennessee Williams (“whose work I admire”), Goyen began his career at thirty with this plotless stream-of-consciousness evocation of growing up in a Piney Woods town. You either adore Goyen’s lyrical prose, or it makes you gag.

Larry Heinemann, Paco’s Story (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1986). The surprise winner of the National Book Award in 1987, defeating Beloved. Paco Sullivan, the sole survivor of a massacre at a Vietnam base camp, gets off the bus in the small town of Boone, Texas, finds a job as a dishwasher, and stays. Everyone in town wants to know his story.

Paul Horgan, Whitewater (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1970). A young man yearns to escape the provincial deadliness of a small Texas plains town. But once he leaves, he finds that his thoughts keep returning. In the tradition of My Ántonia by a neglected Catholic novelist.

William Humphrey, The Ordways (New York: Knopf, 1964). A three-generation family chronicle set in northeast Texas. A Confederate veteran, wounded at Shiloh, attempts to settle on the frontier before retreating with his wife to Red River County. There the Ordways flourish and fan out. A novel in the tradition of the Snopes trilogy.

Tom Lea, The Wonderful Country (Boston: Little, Brown, 1952). The Texas border circa 1875. As a boy, Martin Brady shot the man who killed his father and then fled to Mexico. Fourteen years later he wants to return home. An accident strands him in the border town of Puerto where Indian troubles and the coming railroad make life complicated and interesting.

Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses (New York: Knopf, 1992). His most accessible novel. The first volume of his Border Trilogy. In the spring of 1950, the sixteen-year-old main character is evicted from a Texas ranch. He and a friend ride for Mexico where they end up as vaqueros. Less violence and knotty prose than is usual for McCarthy.

Larry McMurtry, Moving On (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1970). My favorite on the list. The novel that drew me to Texas long before I moved here. Sprawls from academe to the rodeo, from Houston to a lonely ranch in the Panhandle. McMurtry once complained that Texas writers seem only to write about the plains or small dusty towns (like Thalia in The Last Picture Show, for example). The Houston scenes in this novel correct that error. The academic scenes are among the truest and funniest I have ever read. Better known for Lonesome Dove—a fine Western, don’t get me wrong—McMurtry is at his most ambitious in this novel, which seeks to cover the whole state.


Pat Burns said...

Thanks so much. I've always been partial to "The Gay Place" but other than "All the pretty horses", I don't know many of the others on your list. I'll dive in. Thanks, again.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the list. Having grown up in various parts of the big empty space between the Mississippi River and California, I'm always searching for good novels that capture something of its unique essence. I started reading Lords of the Plain several days ago, in fact. Although they are not Texas novels, A Distant Trumpet by Paul Horgan and Butcher's Crossing by John Williams are very good books in the same vein.

D. G. Myers said...

I rattled off the title of A Distant Trumpet when naming some historical novels of faith. Horgan deserves not to be forgotten.

Another Texas novel that I would have included if I could have pretended to have read it: Donald Hamilton’s Big Country. First published as a Dell paperback original in 1958, it is now extremely hard to find—and impossible at a reasonable price.

The novel, of course, was the basis of William Wyler’s film starring Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston. I don’t know how else to put it without sounding corny, but The Big Country is a film about being a man. It contains some of my favorite lines. “Don’t you care what people think [about you]?” Carroll Baker asks Peck after he has been made to seem a coward. “I am not responsible for what people think,” Peck replies, “only for what I am.”

The screenplay was written by the novelist Jessamyn West (Nixon’s cousin and the author of The Friendly Persuasion). I should love to know whether the film’s best lines are hers or Hamilton’s. The latter, I suspect.

The novel deserves to be reprinted.

Dwight said...

Thanks for the reminder on Paul Horgan. I devoured several of his books while I was in high school and loved them. And have shorted myself for not going back and rediscovering them all these years later.

Shelley said...

Ah, but as you know, West Texas, where my work is centered, is of course an entirely different country from East Texas....