I have an abiding love for country music, and whenever I get off the plane in Texas and see someone wearing Tony Lama boots and a turquoise studded silver belt buckle completely without irony, I feel a rush of affection for my home. But there's much more to Texas than cowboy culture, just as there's more to Texas literature than books like Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses and Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, wonderful and masterful as they are.
That's not to say there isn't some truth to more familiar ideas about Texas -- pride, for instance. My hometown friends and I probably know the story of the Alamo better than we know any other piece of history, and that rough, partly squared fist shape of Texas is an icon everywhere, on stationary, signs, dog sweaters, shot glasses. But Texas is a complicated, huge place, practically a country unto itself, with widely different landscapes -- coastline, desert, green hills, and woods, and a population that is one of the most diverse in America and maybe the most divided politically. Texas is a place made up of contrasts and stubbornness, which makes for compelling stories, and often unexpected ones. John Steinbeck called Texas "a mystique closely approximating a religion... people either passionately love Texas or passionately hate it, and, as in other religions, few people dare to inspect it for fear of losing their bearings in mystery or paradox."
I think Steinbeck was partly kidding here, but actually, what better reason to read than for the chance to get lost in mystery and paradox? Each of these books, in one way or another, made me see again the Texas beyond cattle and cowboys, the Texas I knew growing up there, with all its knots and messes, with all its various maverick spirits.
Michael Parker, All I Have in This World An unlikely love story between friends, Maria and Marcus, who buy an old Buick together, called Her Lowness. The car has its own troubled history, as do the two owners, which we discover along the way from West Texas, to New Braunfels and San Antonio. Parker shows the indelible imprint of the Texas landscape on his characters: "Maybe her mother was able to give things away and make them stay away because she had chosen to stay here, where everything that had ever happened to her had taken place within thirty square miles. . .Her mother's heart was so windswept, so uncluttered." This is a novel that's sad and funny in equal measures, and there's a lot of beauty in its hardscrabble language, and in Parker's take on the music playing on the car radio.
Katherine Anne Porter, Noon Wine Small South Texas Farm, 1896-1905. Beware of Swede strangers looking for work. Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, farm owners barely scraping by, take in Mr. Helton, who plays the same song again and again on his harmonica, but seems nice enough and he's an excellent worker, even if he's quiet and a little rude. The family comes to like the harmonica playing, or not even hear it anymore they hear it so often, and because of Mr. Helton's hard work, they prosper enough to buy an icebox. Only when an unpleasant stranger, fat and leering, comes looking for Mr. Helton, is there trouble. One of Porter's great, short novels, Noon Wine investigates the psychology of rural Texas tribalism.
Bret Anthony Johnston, Remember Me Like This Set in fictional Southport, along the Texas Gulf, the novel expertly summons Texas heat and the local traditions of boating and bridges as the backdrop for what happens to a family after a son who's been abducted returns home. How do you ever recover? Slowly, just by getting on with things, or maybe never? Johnston has an ear for the slangy poetry of Texas speech and an amazing gift for creating unlikely moments when his characters most reveal themselves. Despite the sadness at the center of this book, it's ultimately a testament to the complex ways that people find solace in the most ordinary moments -- an offhand comment, the look of the sky.
Sandra Cisneros, Woman Hollering Creek "Herd of clouds big as longhorns passing mighty and grazing low," is how the heart-broken narrator describes the sky in "Bien Pretty," a story about enormous Texas cockroaches and love. Cisneros's writing is visionary, but not pretentious. "Woman Hollering Creek" weaves a woman's entranced relationship with telenovelas (Spanish soap operas) to her marriage to a man who beats her, and it's a brilliant exploration of a battered woman's interior life. Through the voices and perspectives of Mexican Americans in and around San Antonio, these stories are often funny, even when their larger subject matters are dark, even when the characters are caught in dire situations. "Little Miracles, Kept Promises" is a story made up entirely of prayers, petitions to saints, and notes to the Virgin Mary.
Mary Karr, The Liars' Club Mary Karr has a perfect ear for Texas speech. The Liars' Club, the memoir of her turbulent childhood in the small, fictional oil town of Leechfield, Texas, an industrial area near Port Arthur, has become practically iconic, for its seering, dramatic scenes, its poetic insights, and especially for its portrait of Karr's mercurial, despairing, painter mother.
William Goyen, House of Breath Set in Charity, Texas (a fictional version of Goyen's hometown of Trinity), House of Breath combines an old-time Texas idiom with a bold Modernist form. Both elegiac and erotic, Goyen circles around the mythic characters in this small town, the pretty and vain daughter who ran away, the man who lost his wife to the river, the sequin-strewn stage performer. The "house made of breath," or memory -- and the talking cistern, river, and well -- return like a chorus, to comment on the lives in Charity. Although there's a strong streak of nostalgia running through the story, it also feels strangely timeless, a surreal picture of a small town as a mirror to the universe.
René Steinke is the author of Friendswood.