THE BOOK REVIEW – It’s much easier to just read a review of a book than having to plow through the whole thing. In conversations, you can easily impress someone by saying, “It was a good read until I found out the murderer was…” That is why I am flipping through the latest New York Times Book Review. Most articles I can skip since I never heard of the subject, Wait. Here is a photograph of a cloud of dust and the cutline: “Ranch hands herding cattle in South Texas, 1970.” Ah, a book about Texas cowboys and cattle and dust. The title of the tome is: “Texas Blood.”
Huh? Is this about the Texas Heart Institute or the shootout at the Twin Peaks in Waco? Neither. It is a thorough lashing of the state. We must suspect that when the author, Roger D. Hodge, turned in his manuscript and got the green light from the publisher, a panel of editors gathered around a Manhattan office table and mulled over that title. “He calls it ‘Bad Stuff About the Lone Star State,’ which is awful.” Says another: “How about, ‘The Texas Leaf Blower Massacre’?” A long pause. “We know that ‘Texas’ is good for any title. No one would go to see ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Vermont,’ if there is one. In the Jan. 15 issue of the New Yorker there is a short, pointless story by David Gates called simply, ‘Texas.’ It has more to do with drugs, family and self-pity, but those titles don’t ring. We’ve got to put ‘Texas’ in. The rest of the title has to grab the reader as she goes down the aisles at Barnes and Noble.” A long sigh. “Boss, no one goes down the aisles in Barnes and Noble any more. They whip out their little electric I something and go to Amazon. Still, the title has to grab them.” Another editor speaks up: “Let’s use ‘Blood.’ It conjures up violence, hatred, anger. Stick it with ‘Texas’ and you’ve got a winner.” And that’s how the book got its name.
The publication is yet another jab at Texas, which only makes good business sense. I call such works a Kick Your Mother expose. The thinking goes like this. If you write a book, “I Loved Playing for the Dallas Cowboys” only Jerry Jones would buy it for himself and his two friends. But if you come up with, “I Hated Playing for the Dallas Cowboys – the inside scoop on America’s rotten team” then you have a best-seller. No one will read a book that tells about your wonderful career as a Border Patrolman in Brownsville, how easy it was to become a movie star, or, for that matter, a tell-all about those fantastic people in the Trump White House. We want dirt, scandal, the inside skinny on household names. So it is that Roger D. Hodge kicked his mother. He tells us he is a seventh-generation Texan, (I am only a sixth but my grandkids are eighth, so there), but left for Brooklyn when he was 18. He obviously was glad he departed, and glad he wrote this book, because he had new land to plow: “As I reread the conventional histories, I remained dissatisfied by their generalizations and hoary meditations on Texas ‘character.’ Much of it struck me as self-congratulatory nationalistic rubbish.” The Times’ reviewer, Stephen Harrigan, himself a noted Texas historian, observes that Hodge even takes on T.R. Ferenbach’s wonderful “Lone Star,” writing: “such epic histories sweep high above the hard ground of lived experiences.” Hodge’s hard ground is a Texas that is “a terrifying land of racism, violence and retrograde politics.” (That doesn’t explain why it is so much cheaper to rent a U-Haul leaving the state than coming in.) We have the Indians, who were “slaughtered” by Texans: “pale riders the color of dust swooped down and spilled their blood onto the thirsty ground.” To this we reply: But what about Van Cliburn?
No point in getting defensive about this, and not just because much of Hodge’s observations are true. Texas has long been portrayed as a place to avoid. As U.S. General Philip Henry Sheridan said in Galveston in 1866: “If I owned Texas and Hell, I would rent Texas and live in Hell.” Ferdinand von Roemer, a young German geologist, visited Texas in 1845 and observed: On Austin – “The capitol is a log house on top of a hill. A more unpretentious building for a law-making body could hardly be found anywhere.” On Houston – “The streets were unpaved and the mud bottomless.” Of more recent vintage: Q: Why are there so many unsolved murders in Texas? A: There are no dental records and everyone has the same DNA. “Anybody who wanders around the world saying, ‘Hell yes, I’m from Texas,’ deserves whatever happens to him.” — Hunter S. Thompson. And comedian George Carlin: “You know the good thing about all those executions in Texas? Fewer Texans.”
In literature, we have seen an ocean of books about the Lone Star State. Go to any large book store and you’ll see aisles marked, Fiction, Children’s, Travel and Texana. Wonder if other states have their own aisles? Many Americans were introduced to Texas with Edna Ferber’s “Giant,” which pointed out, among other transgressions, the treatment of Hispanics. Texans took umbrage, and the joke was that Ferber, while flying over the state, told the pilot, “Fly lower. I need more research.” Larry McMurtry put Texas on the literary map, warts and all. James Michener’s epic, “Texas,” was more flattering, ending with the final line: “Never forget, son, when you represent Texas, always go first class.” And finally a wise man (me) once said: “God may be an Englishman, but when he retires he’ll move to Lakeway.” So we have yet another putdown of our state. Don’t get all twisted up about it. Some people get paid to kick their mother.
Ashby is semi-literate at firstname.lastname@example.org