Weirding the West: Strange Tales That Complicate the Picture of Texas
Elizabeth Gonzalez James on the Weird, Wild Literature of Her Home State.
In 2015 I decided to write a magical realism western despite knowing nothing about magical realism or westerns. I wanted to fictionalize the story of my great-grandfather, Antonio Gonzalez, who was a bandido in the late 1800s, was shot in the face by the Texas Rangers and left for dead, but lived and was henceforth known as “El Tragabalas,” or, “The Bullet Swallower.”
The date and setting of my great-grandfather’s story dictated that I write a western; I decided to make it magical because that sounded cool. (Budding writers are generally steered away from making major authorial choices on the basis of “it sounds cool.” And yet I think a lot of us get into writing because we have a good sense of when following cool will pay off. Much ink has been spilled on why Melville included so many whale facts in Moby Dick, but maybe on some level he just thought they were cool.)
To educate myself, I embarked on a multi-year reading campaign to ground myself in both canons and to understand life along the Texas-Mexico border in 1895 and beyond. I read Cormac, I read Gabo, I read Allende and McMurtry and dozens of others. In the end I think I read upwards of sixty books, fiction and nonfiction. It was probably too much. Definitely too much. And yet I made many literary friends along the way, books that complicated my picture of the American west, specifically Texas (my home state), and delighted my taste for the weird.
Fernando A. Flores, Valleyesque
Looking at the cover of this short story collection, you know you’re going to get weird: the splayed legs, the floating piano, the menacing drop of blood. And Flores does not disappoint. His writing reminds me of another Texan, Donald Barthelme, for its surreal imagery and intense confidence. By the third story in the collection, which opens with 19th century composer Frédéric Chopin waking up muddy and ailing in modern Ciudad Juarez, you know you’re in capable hands and can just sit back and enjoy the insanity. Flores’s deft mix of hyperreality with the surreal also brings to mind another favorite of mine, Bruno Schulz, a writer of gifted imagination and an ability to make the mundane magical. Flores writes with such a flair for the uncanny, reading him is like seeing Texas for the very first time.
Alison Wisdom, The Burning Season
In this disturbing novel about a woman trapped in a repressive religious cult, Wisdom strikes right at the heart of modern Texas and the ways many well-intentioned people live in religious hypocrisy. Rosemary has followed her husband to a small town slowly being taken over by a religious sect that is controlled by a charismatic preacher named Papa Jake. Anyone who grew up in the Bible Belt, as I did, will find this story uncomfortably familiar, and will recognize the slow slide from searching to believing, from meaning well to brutality, from faith to hate.
Gabino Iglesias, The Devil Takes You Home
Being a fairly new reader of horror, I was very excited for Iglesias’s latest. Mario has recently lost his young daughter to cancer, and his wife to grief, and so with nothing to live for he becomes a hitman. When a friend offers him the chance to make a huge sum of money doing a job for a narco-cartel, he agrees, and is launched into a nightmare world of violence and cruelty. Fair warning: This book is dark. DARK. But as someone who grew up on the border amid the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, where, it turns out, cults were actually sacrificing people to the devil, I found Iglesias’s descent into the grim world of drug-fueled violence chillingly rendered and all too real.
Larry McMurtry, All My Friends Are Going to be Strangers
Larry McMurtry is the literary patron saint of Texas. Lonesome Dove will probably be added to the state seal at some point. As it should—it’s incredible. But before Gus and Call drove beeves up to Montana, McMurtry was writing a series of loosely connected novels about an offbeat cast of oversexed dysfunctionals in 1970s Houston, my favorite of which is All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers.
Danny Deck is living in a guest house apartment with his girlfriend, and on the verge of success as a writer. But his heart and his penis lead him often in the wrong direction, always to hilarious result. The scene of him at his tony book launch next to a fountain of champagne, waiting for a legion of fans who never show up, is a hilariously cringe moment in a novel full of them, and will be relatable to anyone, writer or not, who has had their hopes dashed against the rocks.
Katherine Hoerth, Flare Stacks in Full Bloom
This poetry collection isn’t weird necessarily, but I include it here for the author’s uncanny ability to describe precisely what it is like to live around oil refineries, a fixture across east Texas, including my hometown of Corpus Christi. This stretch of the Texas coastline is sometimes called “Cancer Alley” for the amount of noxious chemicals released into the environment.
But they are also lifeblood: My father worked at the refinery, as did my brother, as does everyone, in one way or another, back home. Hoerth paints a vivid picture of natural destruction, the floods in Houston following Hurricane Harvey, and the unrelenting machinery of consumption. Describing the eerie glow of a refinery flare at night, she says, “Here, I watch the sunset all night long, imagining the hum of flame is birdsong.” Sounds like home.
Charles Portis, The Dog of the South
Most people have heard of True Grit, Portis’s blockbuster novel of how much butt fourteen-year-old girls can kick, even in the wild west. But The Dog of the South, which is begging for a Coen brothers adaptation, is equally funny and surprising. Ray Midge drives across Texas and all the way into Belize to chase after the Ford Torino his wife took when she ran off with her ex-husband. On the way Midge thinks about the Civil War, and runs across a bizarre cast of characters, including Dr. Reo Symes, a leech and extraordinary bullshitter. Come for the journey; stay for the prodigious use of exclamation marks.
Lawrence Wright, God Save Texas
A journalist with a gift for telling it how it is, Wright uses his sharp eye to portray contemporary Texas in all her hideous glory. In essays that touch on all aspects of Texas from guns to oil to politics and music, he manages to be at the right place at the right time with the right people, and lets us sit in the room, too. He describes a long cordiality with former President George W. Bush, a man he calls “uncurious,” which I believe is maybe the most apt thing anyone has ever said about him.
He delves into our state’s collective obsession with bigness through an essay on Buc-ee’s—the world’s largest gas station in New Braunfels. He touches on Texas’s problem with rogue peacocks, which can be distracted, it turns out, by mirrors hung on fences. And he takes a fascinating dive into the Savings and Loan Scandal of the 1980s, which reduced former governor John Connally to selling all his possessions at auction, including a Santa Claus cookie jar. If you have ever asked yourself, What the Hell is going on in Texas?, this book might have your answer.
Merritt Tierce, Love Me Back
I have been banging the drum for this incredible book since it came out in 2012. Marie is a waitress at an upscale steakhouse in Dallas, and through her searing narration, we enter a grim world of subservience, demented power dynamics, and the internal struggle of a woman who desperately wants to be better but can’t. Marie shares custody of her young daughter with her ex-husband, but she hates herself for all the ways she believes she fails her, and punishes herself brutally. As much about motherhood as punishment, it’s an unflinching and honest story about what love really means, and what it costs to hold onto it.
Bret Anthony Johnston, Corpus Christi: Stories
I ordered this collection within five seconds of hearing that it existed. The city of Corpus Christi is not often high in the literary imagination, and so I will read any book set there. Johnston is a master of the short form, having won both an NEA Fellowship and the £30,000 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award. In this, his debut collection, he paints a bleak picture of our shared hometown, a place where natural disaster is always on the horizon, and the slide into decrepitude is inevitable. The jewel of the collection is a three-story cycle about a son caring for his mother as she dies of cancer, a gift to readers of profound empathy and sight.
Ben Fountain, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Football is religion in Texas, as everyone knows, and this novel about an Iraq war soldier gifted a Sunday in a private box at a Dallas Cowboys game shows just how fanatical this devotion is. Fountain’s tremendous novel is that rare combination of funny as hell and sad as hell. I listened to the audiobook during the early lockdown of 2020 and I remember cracking up behind my mask at Trader Joe’s one gray morning, wishing I could be anywhere, even a Cowboys merch palace, rather than under quarantine.
Fountain writes with sharp observation and true empathy for his fully wrought characters. Setting the nationalistic theatrics of a football game against the reality of a bunch of shell-shocked boys home for a brief interlude before returning to battle, gives him an incredible stage on which to present his story of hypocrisy, patriotism, manhood, and despair. And yes, there are cheerleaders.
Arturo Longoria, Adios to the Brushlands
I came across Arturo Longoria when I was searching for information on the terrain of South Texas, a hot, thorny hellscape of brush so dense people regularly used to get lost and die in it before finding water. A journalist and native son of the borderlands, Longoria’s memoir is an elegy to a land denuded and desecrated in favor of farming, ranching, and oil exploration.
Having lived in South Texas for eighteen years, in a neighborhood surrounded by flat fields of cotton that stretch to the horizon, it was a genuine shock to read Longoria’s book and learn that until the 1960s the entire bottom triangle of Texas was filled with trees. Longoria’s narrative of the waste of his world is a beautiful ode to a landscape, and a necessary chapter in the history of the state.
The Bullet Swallower by Elizabeth Gonzalez James is available now.