'God Save Texas' is Lawrence Wright’s affectionate, eye-opening, slightly rueful love letter to his native state

Intended to be part travelogue, part reportage, and part memoir, 'God Save Texas' reads less like a coherent narrative and more like a collection of essays.

God Save Texas: A Journey into the Soul of the Lone Star State By Lawrence Wright Alfred A Knopf 368 pp.

 Is there any other state that can match Texas’s outsized impact on the rest of the country? The state gave us Buddy Holly, Lyndon Johnson, and George W. Bush.  The 20th-century automobile boom was fueled with Texas oil.  And thanks to the size of the Texas schoolbook market, the state board of education has a disproportionate influence on the textbooks used in American schools.

If it were an independent nation (which Texans of a certain ilk will never tire of telling you it once was) it would be a world economy bigger than Canada.

On a much darker note, the shots fired in Dealey Plaza shattered a national innocence. Less than three years later Charles Whitman inaugurated the era of mass shootings when he gunned down 47 people on the University of Texas campus.

God Save Texas is author Lawrence Wright’s affectionate, eye-opening, and, at times, rueful love letter to his native state.  Within the covers of this book is Texas in all its fascinating outrageousness: the boom-and-bust economy, the gerrymandered voting districts that make the state’s Congressional delegation more conservative than its voters, and the genuine community spirit that maddeningly coexists with underfunded public schools and social services. 

But Wright also shows us the Texas of the remote artists’ community of Marfa (200 miles from the nearest airport) where during the 1955 filming of "Giant," Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor ran outside with buckets during a hailstorm to catch ice for their Bloody Marys (apparently in Texas, even making a cocktail has to have an element of the extreme). And what other state can boast its very own magazine  (The Texas Monthly – one of Wright’s former employers) dedicated to New Yorker-quality literary journalism?

Wright is a gifted reporter who can make almost any subject interesting. Before reading this book, if you had told me I would enjoy a chapter on the history of oil drilling in Texas I would never have believed it.  I would have been equally reluctant to imagine the history of the Astrodome could be anything other than boring.

Much of “God Save Texas” is a portrait of a state that, for all its vaunted uniqueness, often resembles the rest of the country. The cities are increasingly multicultural and vote blue; rural areas remain steadfastly red. While industries such as technology and health care create high-paying jobs most people are in low-pay work with few benefits.  Wright also makes an anecdotal case for Texas as the birthplace of our current political polarization. When Lyndon Johnson made a speech in Dallas in 1960, a group of mink-coated ladies descended upon him and Lady Bird, cursing and spitting at them.  Three years later the state legislature passed a law criminalizing display of the United Nations flag.

One of the more enticing aspects of “God Save Texas” is Wright’s habit of brief references to events that I doubted actually happened. Were nuclear bombs ever used in West Texas to break up subterranean rock to get to the oil beneath? (Yes, I discovered: Google “nuclear bomb oil well Texas”.) Did the proposal to put “The Wildflower State” on Texas license plates so offend Texas manhood that it provoked an uproar in the state legislature? (Yes. Molly Ivins wrote a column about it.)  Did Nieman Marcus founder Stanley Marcus really scandalize the people of 1960s Dallas when he grew a beard? (An exaggeration.)

For me the gem of this book is the chapter “Sausage Making,” Wright’s eyewitness account of the final hours of a session of the state legislature, a drama of confrontation, posturing, heartfelt appeals, manipulations of parliamentary procedure, and just plain old viciousness.  For good measure, Wright throws in a folksy, detailed account of the preferred way to kill feral hogs – a hot-button political issue in Texas.

Intended to be part travelogue, part reportage and part memoir, “God Save Texas” reads less like a coherent narrative and more like a collection of essays (at least some of this book is recycled from Wright’s New Yorker articles).   At times the writing has a thinness that will disappoint readers of his books such as “The Looming Tower. “

In spite of all that’s good in “God Save Texas,” Wright has tried to do too much in too few pages. For example, he attempts to include his best friend and wife in the book as characters, but they’re never more than names to me. His history of his personal life seems lifeless compared to his account of a Black Lives matter protest in Dallas. Despite the book’s failings, in Wright’s efforts to explain his native state he often hits the bull’s-eye. “God Save Texas” is worth reading by anyone who wants to understand Texas – or this country.

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