Austin Powers



What temptations can a place possess?

– Dave Oliphant, Austin

It’s a mixed blessing that Austin has finally become what its namesake and founder once envisioned, in the poet’s phrase, as “this city of light and learning.” Blessed with friendly people and natural beauty, and still buzzing with energy and possibility, Austin is now besieged by real estate hustlers, swarmed by silicon carpetbaggers from California and Taiwan, and betrayed by venal politicians from Odessa to D.C. New money scars its hillsides, floods its highways, and thrives on the cheap labor that has roiled up from Central America, southeast Asia, or simply the East Side. As a city, it has reached that critical mass of population and money that creates both vitality and squalor – which means it is ripe and ready for melodrama.

Onto this stage step Mary Willis Walker and James Magnuson, Austin novelists alert to both the possibilities and dangers of life in the new city. Walker has now published four novels of detection and suspense, set primarily in Austin; Magnuson, director of U.T.-Austin’s Michener Center for Writers, is returning to the novel after ten years of writing for television. In their sprightly and inventive fictions, both authors have something to tell us about life on these increasingly meaner streets.

Walker’s Austin is home to Molly Cates, a magazine writer (“Lone Star Monthly”) who finds herself repeatedly at the center of spectacular and complicated crime stories. (Katherine Driscoll, the Cates-like protagonist of Walker’s first novel, Zero at the Bone, had a less adventurous and less glamorous occupation: dog trainer.) Cates is a nineties heroine, a divorced woman in early middle age with a nearly grown daughter. Not a detective herself, she has an ongoing affair with an Austin police lieutenant, who assists both heroine and her creator by providing crucial information and passion at strategic intervals. And in the Ross McDonald tradition, Walker’s plots tend to be interwoven and reverberating – a story that seems to be about some present crime inevitably echoes into the past, and gathers the detective (or in this case, the journalist) into its rhythms and history.

In All the Dead Lie Down, the present crime is potentially a garish one: a shadowy paramilitary group is plotting to detonate toxic gas into the Legislature, killing everyone present. (Walker’s titles are from Emily Dickinson, who proves a surprisingly gothic thesaurus.) Cates hears of the plot one day from a drunken bag lady, but while she is skeptically pursuing that story she finds it linked with her own past, and the mysterious death of her father when she was a teenager. Her search into apparently political criminality drifts inexorably into her family history and out to West Texas, and then abruptly shifts back into the contemporary Austin scene.

The plotters are attempting to head off a pending gun control bill (upon reflection, perhaps the most unconvincing aspect of the story), but to Walker’s credit the novel’s topical politics set a sharp backdrop without overwhelming her tale. Indeed, even the treatment of weaponry is ambivalent, for although Walker quotes approvingly another Molly (Ivins) on the folly of private gun ownership, Molly Cates’ close work with a handgun proves indispensable in her own defense and in the unraveling of the plot. Equally important is the bag lady, Sarah Jane Hurley, who appears first as a leering apparition of drunken dereliction, and then grows into a free-standing character with her own history and tale to tell. Indeed, Sarah Jane (a/k/a “Cow Lady”) becomes almost literally a stand-in for the unknown Austin – largely invisible to the reporters, the authorities, and the traffic jams full of well-dressed people who matter.

As they walked, the woman continued to talk nonstop about finding Cow Lady in the rain and bringing her back to life and healing her. Just past a decrepit service station, she turned into what looked like an ancient parking lot with patchy, cracked asphalt. Uncut grasses and weeds nearly obscured a NO DUMPING sign that stood on the corner. At the rear, a driveway of crumbly cement led back to a wild overgrown area that looked more like the Amazon jungle than South Austin. They stepped over a low cable meant to keep cars out and followed the driveway to where it ended in a dirt path. Molly looked back and was amazed to see that civilization had disappeared. They might have been miles from the city, instead of a few hundred yards from a busy urban intersection.

I know that intersection, along Barton Springs Road; one of the important small pleasures of reading hometown novels is recognizing the landmarks. But another is discovering unfamiliar places, unknown neighborhoods. Mary Willis Walker’s novels are adept at taking the mystery genre and investing it with lively new significance, and taking up Austin and finding a surprising world where the familiar road ends.

The driving wheel of James Magnuson’s Windfall is less explosive than a mass assassination, but equally melodramatic: as the book opens, Ben Lindberg, a young English professor at U.T., stumbles upon a fortune hidden near his home. (It’s in South Austin, where this kind of thing is rumored to go on all the time.) By the signs, it’s a massive cache of stolen or drug money, but Lindberg can’t resist taking, first a bit, and then all of it.

Since we’re all lottery players these days, Magnuson’s grand joke is to turn what looks like a fairy tale into a thriller. He gives the luckless Lindberg what he thinks he most wants, and then watches the unhappy results. English teacher salaries being what they are, and the true “owners” likely to be thieves at best, Lindberg can’t get rid of the money, and he can’t really spend it. He’s afraid to tell anyone about it, even his wife, and other than small amounts for car repairs and athletic shoes, the money becomes as oppressive to him as Poe’s telltale heart. Like a character in a mystery, he decides he needs to “launder” the money – only to realize he hasn’t got the slightest notion what that might mean. He confides in the sort of people who might know, and soon they’re looking to launder him out of his fortune.

Like Walker, Magnuson follows his narrative into his protagonist’s interior, although he is less interested in catching the crooks than in capturing the slow breakdown of Lindberg’s spirit. The professor is also a Thoreau scholar, perhaps on the verge of a crucial discovery about the notorious falling-out between Thoreau and Emerson. The shadow that fell over that historical friendship becomes a premonition of the shadow that has fallen over Lindberg’s life. It’s a device that neatly links the inner and outer worlds of the novel, and it even provides the occasion of the professor’s downfall: one of his part-time graduate students is also a small-time hustler, and the teacher foolishly turns to the student for advice about dealing with his windfall.

In a dream Lindberg sees Thoreau, sounding the frozen Walden Pond. The water at first seems bottomless, but Thoreau brings up, out of the dreamer’s spirit, a nightmare of the first innocent victim of the teacher’s avarice: an old woman slain by those searching for the stolen money.

Finally Ben saw what Thoreau intended him to see. Clinging to the stone at the end of the sounding line was the old woman. She was not alive. If anything, she looked frozen, her eyes open, but lusterless and vacant as a pike’s, but somehow that hadn’t loosened her grip as she trolled upward in the sacred water, her Mardi Gras beads drifting around her neck like eels.

As that passage suggests, Magnuson is after deeper fish than just Ben’s big score, and Windfall is less a novel about money than about the harsh light money shines on men’s hearts. It is also about the new Austin – every roadway, office, and landscape is readily recognizable, and in speaking of the book the author is frank about his hometown target. “I feel that Austin in the 1990s has become the emblem of something,” he told an interviewer, “the place where everyone wants to move, the All-American boom town, a city where you can protect the endangered salamander and still make billions in high tech, a city that’s all sunshine and no shadow…. [But] I hope to create a portrait of contemporary Texas that is much more disturbing and shadow-ridden than the pictures created by rah-rah publicists.”

It’s a pattern that’s as old as American literature, and indeed the country that spawned it. The newcomers arrive in an undiscovered paradise, only to find that it’s as fallen a world as the one they left. How could it not be, when they brought their dark hearts along with them? The newest waves of Austin settlers are only beginning to imagine what these two novelists already know.

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Published at 12:00 am CST