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Two Larrys and I

By W. K. Stratton


Introduction to the 2015 Ten Spurs ...

 

I was driving along a particularly bleak stretch of two-lane blacktop in North Texas, dreading the upcoming holidays (as I always do), when I received word that Larry King was dead. I should here clarify that I mean Larry L. King, the writer perhaps best known these days for the play The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas; I’m not referring to the suspenders-wearing talking-head late of CNN. Sorrow drifted over me as I sped along the highway under a nickel-colored December sky, thinking about King as Hank Williams boomed in my Lexus.

A neutral observer would say I scarcely knew Larry King. After all, I’d been in his company only three or four times. One of those occurred at the Capitol in Austin, where he managed to hit just about every entry in the dictionary of scatology while speaking to a mostly blue-haired audience who had motored to town for the Texas Book Festival. Yet I felt I knew him about as well as I knew any person.

For years I’d read his work. No, read is not a strong enough word. I’d studied, parsed, been schooled by his work. Long before The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas became a Broadway hit, King had paid for his beer and groceries by writing narrative nonfiction. From the early 1960s until the time his playwright riches made hustling monthly deadlines unnecessary, he was one of America’s best magazine journalists. He was the MVP of the remarkable team of writers Willie Morris assembled to contribute to Harper’s during Morris’ legendary run as editor. That is no small accolade for a literary wrecking crew that included the likes of David Halberstam and Norman Mailer. His primary topic was politics, but he also wrote about history, true crime, sports, and race relations – and, yes, a whorehouse in La Grange, Texas. Almost always his writing was spiced up with humor – he could be very funny.

He could also be very Texan – in fact, he almost always was very Texan. West Texan, to be precise. His syntax oozed sense of place.  To read him was akin to indulging in chicken fried steak with cream gravy and Lone Star beer.  Some might say he was the quintessence of the Texas writer. He certainly looked the part with his cowboy boots and Western belts and blue jeans and vest. His accent was more of what you’d expect from a Big Spring cattle buyer than a Princeton faculty member (which he was for a time).

Yes, Princeton, and therein lies a dirty little secret: Larry L. was in fact an urban dude, an East Coast guy. To be sure, he was Texas born and bred. But once he hit his twenties, he wanted out. Hooking up with a West Texas Congressman as, in his words, “a second-banana politician” was his passport. Once he settled into D.C., he was done as a Texas resident. He visited here often enough, but in fact he came to know the finer points of hailing a cab in Midtown Manhattan better than driving lonesome country roads. He called either New York City or Washington home for more than fifty years.

I don’t know if Larry L. King and Lawrence Wright were blood-brother friendly. I’m confident that they must have at least been acquaintances. They both are known for being highly accomplished narrative nonfiction writers who have made successful forays into drama and also published novels. Both were associated with great American magazines, King, of course, with Harper’s, Wright with The New Yorker.  Both have been highly lauded: King was a finalist for the National Book Award; Wright won the Pulitzer Prize. But there the similarities stop.

Larry Wright is, I believe, the most distinguished nonfiction author in America today. In person, he comes across as confident and erudite – and his writing exudes the same qualities. He is very much a man of the world and his books and New Yorker pieces reflect that. The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 won the Pulitzer Prize and rightly so. It is, I believe, the most important book written by an American about the conflict between Islamists and the West. It also is a real page turner. Through dedicated work over the years, Wright has taught himself how to combine rigorous research, excellent reporting, and great storytelling skills to create books that are essential reading. The technique extends to recent titles, all of which received critical hosannas, such as Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief and Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David. I’m a particular fan of his earlier book, In the New World: Growing Up in America: 1964-1984. It is a memoir in the best sense of the word, an honest and factual telling of how Wright came to age. I read it while I was working on a small town daily newspaper and it influenced how I approached my own writing. I recommend anyone interested in writing personal journalism spend some hours with it.

Wright speaks without a trace of a Lone Star accent. He appears very much at ease in a business suit. I don’t associate him with cowboy boots at all. You sense he might be more comfortable in a cosmopolitan capital of the likes of Vienna or Tokyo than in, say, Lubbock. But the dirty little secret here is that this Larry is thoroughly Texan. He was born in Oklahoma – which a friend of mine describes as Texas’ Sudetenland – and his family moved to Dallas when he was a young boy. He distinguished himself through high school and was graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans, and then studied at the American University in Cairo, Egypt, from which he received an M.A. in Applied Linguistics. He also taught English there. Back in the U.S., he worked for publications in Nashville and Atlanta before arriving in Austin in 1980 to join the staff of Texas Monthly (a magazine to which Larry L. King also frequently contributed). While at Texas Monthly, he also became a contributing editor to Rolling Stone. He has called Texas home for more than 35 years now. That, combined with the years spent growing up in Dallas, means he’s lived in the Lone Star State for far longer than Larry L. King ever did.

And yet most serious readers who give the topic any thought would easily categorize Larry King as a “Texas writer” while few would apply that descriptor to Larry Wright, though Wright clearly has the stronger Texas street cred. For me, however, both Larrys are Texas writers. But defining just what is and isn’t Texas writing gets to be a little thorny. It’s easier to say why it matters.

Last summer, I edited a series called “Texas Classics,” which appeared in The Dallas Morning News. The series featured a dozen or so pieces written by winners of the Texas Institute of Letters’ Lon Tinkle Award, which is (sort of) the organization’s equivalent of a lifetime achievement Oscar. (Both Larry King and Larry Wright have won the award.) The Tinkle Award winners are significant Texas writers, to be sure, even if TIL has failed itself by choosing just a handful of women to win the award and no more than two Tejano writers – and no black authors. In an introductory essay for the series, I quoted another Larry (McMurtry, also a Tinkle Award winner) in an attempt to get at a definition of Texas writing. He once wrote that it is “native in the most obvious sense: set here, centered here, and, for the most part, written here.”

Okay, so what is the here? I speculated:

The here of Texas is the dynamic created by the ever-changing challenging the ever-traditional. That was true when Hispanic and Anglo settlers confronted Comanches. It’s especially true now when tens of thousands of desperate newcomers vault across the state line each year, hungry for jobs. The job of the Texas writer is to confront that dynamic and render it into words in an artful way.

The early renderings often involved Texas patriots defending the Alamo or cowboys in battle with American Indians. It was powerful stuff — enough so that it became mythic. Never mind that the facts of the “true stories” were often wrong and the heroics were often as not steeped in bigotry. For decades, Texas writers, with notable exceptions — one was Katherine Anne Porter from Indian Creek — dared not step too far beyond the myth.

But in the second half of the 20th century, Texas writers started breaking away. Skilled artists set the old myths on their ears while others opted to ignore them altogether. The state was home to important Postmodernist authors. Eloquent minority voices began to receive long-overdue appreciation. Writers associated with the state began to win important literary prizes such as the Pulitzer and the National Book Award.

In 21st-century Texas, you can find writers as varied and impressive as the geography itself dealing with the here of Texas.

Good enough. Except where does that leave Larry Wright, whose most important works have little if anything to do with that here? On the surface, I suppose the answer would be, “Nada!” But if you dig around below the surface, you can find indications that the here is important to Wright’s work.

Bill Wittliff’s office is located in a large two story house about a horseshoe toss away from the historic Treaty Oak in Austin. For a time, Wittliff shared this space with two other Texas writers, Stephen Harrigan and Edwin “Bud” Shrake. I’m not certain which individual projects these three distinguished writers were working on during the weeks they shared a common roof. I don’t know how they did or did not interact with each other. But I know one thing for certain: The creative vitality in those rooms was remarkable.  I also know they had to draw on that energy.

You could consider the whole of Texas to be an enormous extension of those rooms at Wittliff’s place. For four or more generations, writers who live in Texas or who could be considered Texas expatriates, have drawn on some common energy, an energy created by dozens or hundreds of writers every day as they toil at their desk. Larry Wright lives in Austin because he wants to be in Austin. He gets something from being there he wouldn’t get elsewhere. Those hoary pioneers of Texas letters, Dobie, Bedichek, and Webb, plopped down on Philosopher’s Rock on Barton Creek to sun themselves and hold forth on topics both noble and mundane. But the real reason they came together, I believe, was to tap into each other’s energy to foster creativity.

That is the defining element of the Texas writer, someone who taps into that energy. The creativity spurred by that energy does not have to be directed toward the Texas landscape and the people who live there. But it certainly can be. Texas writers also contribute to the creation of that energy. Consider Abraham Verghese. He was born in Addis Ababa, the son of parents from India who had been recruited to teach in Ethiopia by Emperor Haile Selassie. He was educated in medicine in the country of his birth and in India, then came to the U.S., eventually going to work in a small town in Tennessee, where he was a practicing physician. He also became a writer, leaving medicine for a short time to attend the Iowa Writers Workshop. After receiving his MFA, he settled in El Paso, where he became a professor of medicine at the Texas Tech Health Sciences Center. It was while he was in El Paso that he published his first book, My Own Country: A Doctor’s Story of a Town and Its People in the Age of AIDS. Though My Own Country was written by a native of Ethiopia about his experiences treating AIDS in Johnson City, Tennessee, its impact on Texas writers was significant. It contributed to the literary energy here.

Or consider Marion Winik. She is a native of Manhattan and was raised on the Jersey Shore. Hardly anything about her or her writing seemed very Texas-like when she and her first husband wound up in Austin during the 1980s. But, while working as a tech writer, she began contributing personal essays to the Austin Chronicle. Now certainly she wrote and wrote well before she arrived in Central Texas. But it was while she was here, surrounded by literary energy, that her distinctive writing voice emerged. Her pieces caught the eye of John Burnett, a UT alum who was and is an NPR correspondent. He proposed that she become a commentator for the network, NPR agreed, and Winik’s national exposure was born. Books followed. She, like Verghese, became recognized as a Texas writer; this occurred even as they established international reputations and moved away from the state (Verghese to Stanford and California, Winik to the University of Baltimore and, well, Baltimore). And to complete a circle: John Burnett plays harmonica in a blues band called Who Do, which features Larry Wright on keyboards.

Those kinds of circles and the energy associated with them are precisely what constitutes Texas writing. Both Larrys fit in. One crafts a personal narrative about coming to grips with the racism instilled in him in post-World War II West Texas. The other documents an intricate flow of events, all occurring far away from the land of Friday Night Lights and Big Red sodas that led to the most notorious terrorist attack to hit the United States.

    Both are Texas writers.

    And I am a Texas writer.

My friend Dick J. Reavis, himself the author of profound and beautiful works of nonfiction, calls Oklahoma the Sudetenland of Texas. I like that. Dick was born in Elk City, Oklahoma, just across the state line from the Texas Panhandle. I was born in central Oklahoma. Dick moved to Texas with his family as a child. I had family connections in Texas, but I never actually relocated here until after college and some time spent working in politics and on newspapers. So, contrary to the bumper sticker, I didn’t get here as fast I could. But I made it in time.

At a community college up there on the red dirt plains, a professor who otherwise gave me no good advice said I must read Larry McMurtry’s In a Narrow Grave “if you’re ever going to write about this part of the country.” McMurtry? The guy who wrote The Last Picture Show? I hustled to the college library.

It was the mid-1970s. My literary heroes were Ernest Hemingway and Hunter S. Thompson. At that point, I’d read writers from Texas, of course, but I hadn’t given much thought to the concept of a “Texas writer.” That changed after I consumed In a Narrow Grave, McMurtry’s collection of essays about Texas and the writing it has spawned. In a Narrow Grave changed my life. Last year, I completed a two-year term as president of the Texas Institute of Letters. I cannot conceive of a way I might have ever filled that role had I not read In a Narrow Grave and begun cogitating about Texas writing all those years ago.

It was after I moved to Texas that I truly discovered myself as a writer. I’ve drawn from the energy in the literary community to be sure. But beyond that, those Texas writers who write about Texas and certain elements of Texas society have shown me how to write about my own back pages. In a recent e-mail exchange, my friend Dick described me as being “deep Texas.” He explained:

The idea of “deep Texas,” by the way, comes from a Mexican sociologist. Mexico, as you may know, is essentially a two-class society whose upper ranks are mostly of European descent, while most working people are mostly of Indian descent. The term “deep Mexico” refers to everybody in the lower ranks, the remaining speakers of Indian or indigenous languages–about 10 percent of the population–being the “deepest” Mexicans.

My back pages are filled with roughnecks and rodeo cowboys, trailer houses and outhouses, faith healers and wheeler dealers, bootleggers and tow-truck operators, farmers and ranchers, snake-handlers and panhandlers, watermelon growers and cowchip throwers. My roots don’t reflect much to parallel life in the Park Cities or River Oaks. But when I drive from, say, Belton to Abilene, I know the country I pass through. I may have been born in that Sudetenland, but I understand this country. I have absorbed it; it has absorbed me. I am “deep Texas.” I belong here.

 

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By W. K. Stratton
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