There should be every “damndest” reason, as the wealthy, outsized Texan in Jonathan Franzen’s new novel Freedom might say, to take Franzen to task for giving readers one more example of something the world could use less of: an obnoxious Texan. An oil-and-gas man who’s pocketed at least $100 million, Vin Haven is a “short, gruff, bullet-headed man” who hires Walter Berglund, the kind but hapless protagonist of this addictive, beautifully precise novel, to do a little dirty work. Vin wants Walter to initiate a robust round of mountaintop removal in West Virginia. That will allow Haven, in a tit-for-tat deal he’s made with some coal-company cronies, to insulate the habitat of his beloved cerulean warbler, a bird not yet endangered, but one Haven is determined to protect. “My thinking is, it’s my hundred million, I can spend it whatever way I like,” Haven barks at Walter when pressed about saving a bird.
Freedom takes place post-9/11. When Franzen writes that “Walter had been unfamiliar with the concept of good Texans, the national news being so dominated by bad ones,” the reader knows Franzen’s arrow is aimed right for the large white house on Pennsylvania Avenue. The stereotype of the brash, wealthy Texan emerged long before President George W. Bush entered office, but can the residents of all 50 states be so neatly parsed in the national imagination between good and bad as Texans can? Are there “good” North Dakotans and “bad” ones? Let’s take Maine. Are there “good” Mainers and “bad” ones? There are good and bad Americans everywhere, but Americans don’t love scolding bad Mainers the way they do bad Texans. To the well-intentioned liberal couple at the heart of Freedom, it seems as if the country has been hijacked by Texans who took things too far, as Texans tend to do. At least the “bad” ones.
When Franzen introduces Vin Haven, there is every reason to expect that he will play up the bad Texan. Franzen’s novels may be dark and evoke a grim Midwestern mood, but he takes glee in satire. Who’s more fun to satirize than a wealthy, self-righteous, gun-toting, wacky Texan? Like other characters in Freedom, however, Vin Haven is hard to shake off as a caricature. Franzen deposits telling details into his characters’ lives. Haven may ride roughshod over those who don’t agree with him, but he also “was the Texan sort of nature lover,” Franzen writes, “who happily blasted cinnamon teal out of the sky but also spent hours raptly monitoring, via closed-circuit spy cam, the development of baby barn owls in a nest box on his property, and could expertly rhapsodize about the scaling patterns on a winter-plumage Baird’s sandpiper.” (Franzen doesn’t waste time—an avid birder, he uses his avocational knowledge here to powerful effect.) It doesn’t hurt that Franzen has done his homework about Texas—he mentions names like Rusty Rose and Father Tom Pincelli (“the ‘birding priest’ of the lower Rio Grande”) as people worth knowing, the people Vin Haven knows.
Despite his wealth, Haven interacts much more smoothly than Walter with the poor West Virginians, and it is Haven who persuades them to move out of the cerulean warbler’s habitat—the job Walter was hired to do. Haven’s wealth and fluid connections to America’s most powerful make him seem grandiose and untouchable, but he is more levelheaded and less self-centered than many others in this book. His environmental notions are draconian—mountaintop removal isn’t exactly the best way to save a bird species—but Haven comes across as strangely likable. Franzen pegs what’s so annoying about big, bad Texans—their retrograde politics. But if you’re interested in human behavior, it’s impossible to ignore them.
Clay Smith is literary director of the Texas Book Festival.