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Deathless Prose

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Texas Letters Forever illustration

With its February 2008 issue, Texas Monthly celebrates its 35th anniversary by profiling “35 People Who Will Shape Our Future.” That got literary eminence Don Graham thinking about the future of Texas letters…

In 2043, Texas literature was much the same as ever, only more so. John Graves was still living off the fame of his first book, and devotees of the Lone Star State’s greatest writer were still making treks to his hardscrabble ranch to record the latest shavings from his sageness, or taking little homage canoe trips down the still undammed stream that flowed through his beloved book. Texans could not bring themselves to say goodbye to that book. Graves had won all the awards that Texas had to offer, and the awards-givers had started over, giving him all the awards a second time, making him a revered pioneer again. All the schoolchildren in the state (those who could read, and that number was falling) were required to read one book, Goodbye to a River. It took some of them years to finish it.

Elmer Kelton was still going strong, too. He published his 432nd paperback Western that year and won his 37th Spur Award as the Best Western Writer That Ever Lived, Bar None. He added a global warming dimension to his basic narrative of hard-but-triumphant times in West Texas, and the weather in his books turned hotter than ever. In one of them, the cows all melted; in another, the blazing sun fried chickens in their feathers. In global-warming circles, The Time It Never Rained was recognized as a classic of primate-climate apocrypha. Chambers of commerce in West Texas now placed a copy of an Elmer Kelton novel in the crib of every male child. Formerly they had placed miniature footballs.

In the old century, Larry McMurtry had taken a public pledge to stop writing novels, but he kept suffering relapses in the new century. His prognosis had become so bad that he joined the Tucson chapter of Aging Novelists Anonymous, but not even the ANA could keep him from writing still another novel. Addicted to advances, he cranked up his ancient Olivetti and set forth-again and again. But the last one might be the last one because even McMurtry couldn’t think of anything more to do with or to Duane, the aging hero of Double-Amputee Duane, the 11th book in the Last Picture Show series. Besides the limb loss, Duane was blind and living in a depressing nursing home that had once been a stable. Somebody was always spiking the punch with Cialis, and there was a pretty young nurse, 73, whom Duane, 111, had his eye on when the book, a spare 82 pages of oversized print, ended.

Among the younger crowd, a fairly relative term by 2043, most of the old reliables were still pumping out their regular yield. Stephen Harrigan had followed up the success of The Gates of the Alamo with The Gates of Goliad, and after that with The Gates of San Jacinto. Then he’d turned again to space, his true love, with The Gates of NASA. In 2040, he enjoyed his biggest hit yet with Foam on the Range, a fond backward glance at the Columbia disaster.

Dagoberto Gilb became editor of the Spanish-language edition of Tejas Monthly, where he railed against rascally Anglos in general and filled the rest of its pages with his unpublished manuscripts. Thus the magazine of the hated rinches became the house organ of the simple carpenter turned associate professor of creative writing. The old Texas Monthly had ceased to publish anything but advertisements, and its market share had continued to grow with the steady increase of immigrants from the south (Mexico) and from the north (everywhere else) who wanted to learn something of their fabulous new state. Or not. It wasn’t clear what anybody learned about anything anymore from any source anywhere. But the service covers were a great hit. Every month the cover depicted a Texas food icon: barbecue, meat, catfish (the debate over which was best, farm-raised or free range, spread like a prairie fire every year when catfish came around), tacos, hog jowls, etc.

Texas literature was no longer taught at the state’s biggest university because no literature was taught at all. Indeed, nothing was taught at the University of the Burnt Orange because the administration had found a way to charge tuition without actually offering classes, eliminating the expense and messiness of having to deal with faculty and students. Now there were only footballers and fans, and the old oxymoronic rubric of student athlete was happily discarded. Now the University played football 10 months of the year in a stadium expanded to 425,000 seats, with an additional 90,000 Skyy Vodka boxes. Coach Mack Brown earned $52 million a season and was still looking for that second Big 12 championship.

A new phenomenon on the writing horizon was gender-neutral fiction, which enjoyed a growing constituency and was one of the last things spawned by the old University of Texas. A gender-bender graduate student with the unlikely name of “Jack” Dalton (neé Veronica Dalton) had led a movement in the early part of the century that persuaded English professors, through the use of tried-and-true terrorist methods, to replace their centuries-old sexist allegiance to the grammar of male and female with a set of neutered pronouns: ze instead of he and she, hir for her and his, zem for them, and so forth. For example, the opening sentence of a Texas classic, Zane Grey’s West of the Pecos, became: “When Templeton Lambeth’s marital partner informed hir that if ze was good ze might in due time expect the heir ze had so passionately longed for, ze grasped at this with the joy of an unneutered male whose fortunes were failing, and who believed that an unneutered male person might revive hir once cherished dream of a new and adventurous life on the wild Tejas ranges west of the Rio Pecos.”

All the classics were being reprogrammed with the new gender pronouns. Law required all new publications to follow the gender-neutral guidelines passed by the administration of the U.S. president, Chelsea Clinton. (All the presidents from 1988 to 2043 were named either Bush or Clinton, and nobody seemed to notice.)

Another worrisome trend was the growth of PETA’s power over Lone Starians. The seminal moment in PETA’s rise was the attempted lynching of well-known liberal journalist Gary Cartwright over a nostalgic piece he had written about the joy of eating a good hamburger. The near-fatal rope party occurred early in the new century, and Cartwright was saved at the last minute only by renouncing meat in favor of granola gruel for the rest of his life. Even unto 2043, he was under a strict gruel watch by a PETA posse that held a round-the-clock vigil inside his domicile in Old Austin.

Though it had no literary bearing, Lance Armstrong turned the capital city into a carbon-free zone famous the world over. Lance recycled himself through improved techniques of cloning so that every fourth bicyclist in Austin’s cyclist army not only looked like Lance Armstrong, but was Lance Armstrong. As everybody now knew, it had never been about the bike; it had always been about Lance. His marriage to the Olsen twins only added to his legend. Austin’s main arterial thoroughfare, Mo-Pac, had long been closed to automobiles. The only automobiles permitted in the city were for political dignitaries and those wealthy enough to participate in Nostalgia Day, when they drove vintage automobiles around and burned up lots of ethanol, running over a cyclist or two to get in touch with their old feelings. (Meantime, former Gov. Rick Perry, who had served a record 22 terms, had defected to the state of Tamaulipas in Old Mexico, where he served for many years as fish and game commissioner.)

There was a new senator, too. Bill Bradley, the old New York Knicks star who had migrated to Texas for the love of an iconic woman, had been elected to the U.S. Senate in his 90s. From Washington, Bradley and his bride, Betty Sue Flowers, the poet lariat of the U.S., presided over an immensely popular new program aimed at Texas: “Everybody’s-an-Icon.” After three months’ residence and a fee of $5,000, Texicans, as they were now called, could achieve Icon status. First they had to pass a literacy test, which kept the program just elitist enough to satisfy the highly educated governor and his followers. Texas Icons received special license plates for their bicycles.

The state, which had long existed on the residual fumes of all the horse dung that composed its self-mythologized history, looked well positioned to pedal into the second half of the 21st century. The construction of a gigantic simulacrum factory had been announced. Its purpose, borrowed from the ideas of French philosopher Roland Barthes, was to make a simulacrum of everything that had once been authentically Texan. Real mythology was to replace mythology, as real margarine had replaced butter, and so on. Chinese investors seemed eager to fund the Simulacrum Project and were seen in major cities wearing 10-gallon hats and boots, and little Chinese spurs.

Meanwhile, John Graves, Elmer Kelton, and all the other good ol’ literary boys continued as they had for nearly a century. The state stole the idea of painted-pony statues from New Mexico and erected statues of painted authors in all 254 county seats. Every county had a statue whether it needed one or not, and the Lone Star State gave off a steady glow of self-approbation, and everybody was happy almost all the time.

Don Graham’s most recent book is Literary Austin (TCU Press, 2007), which he edited. State Fare: An Irreverent Guide to Texas Movies (TCU press) will appear in May, 2008.