Page 18


BOOKS & THE CULTURE Between Mythology and Experience A Visit to Irony Gap Texas, with Don Graham BY MICHAEL KING GIANT COUNTRY: Essays on Texas. TCU Press. 289 pages. $22.50. 11.1on Graham offers an early warning to re viewers of books by living writers, “mean ing especially friends and acquaintances.” “You can’t like a book enough,” he says in the self-interview that opens Giant Country, “and if you don’t say it’s the best thing since Tolstoy they take it kinda personal.” Not having returned to Tolstoy since graduate school, I feel free to mention, with an un troubled conscience, Graham’s new collec tion of miscellaneous essays on Texas and War and Peace in the same sentence. The connection is offered in the same spirit as his epigraph, these telling words from the Coen brothers’ Texas film, Blood Simple: “In Russia they got it mapped out, so that everyone pulls for everyone else. That’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas, and down here you’re on your own.” On his own, as faithful readers of the Ob server have ample reason to know, Don Graham is a helluva writer. In recent years, Graham has published several ingeniously conceived and finely wrought pieces in these pages \(his self-interview, “Greed, Creed, and Me,” was excerpted here as re in Giant Country. That group includes his mordant meditation on the 1995 Seventh Annual Gathering of Cowboy Poets in Ok lahoma City, which took place, as such American things happen, in the immediate aftermath and long shadow of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building. \(Graham manages to address both events with a keen There are a couple of straightforward liter ary reconsiderations, including a thoughtful discussion of the ambiguously “regional” Don Graham from Giant Country legacy of John Graves, and a sparkling evocation of the unjustly neglected novels of William Humphrey. \(The wonderfully knowledgeable and craftsmanlike Humphrey piece was written to order, you might like to know, immediately following well are several Texas-friendly wrestling matches with an old nemesis/precursor, Larry McMurtry most memorably “Anything for Larry” \(first published here of the author-critic relationship as well as a sardonic commentary on the nature of literary celebrity. That brief piece alone \(although slightly bowdlerized and truncated here, tant pis, so don’t lose your Observer Giant Country, which elsewhere in its large and varied scope collects simply some of the very best writing available about books, places, films, and other things Texan. I first learned of “Anything for Larry” in the summer of 1995, when I heard Graham read it aloud at an event he recalls as an “Austin Culture Bash.” It’s a sweet piece on the page, but in Graham’s own perfectly appropriate, understated East Texas twang \(“It’s where I live,” as he says, “in Irony memorable comic magic: What you have to realize is this: Larry is a brand-name author, has been since the runaway success of Lonesome Dove, a book I reviewed, back in ’85, for an obscure, now defunct local magazine \(I have written for more defunct magazines than I pletely on that book. How was I to know that yuppies across the length and breadth of this great land would spend their poolside summer enchanted by the dusty adventures of Gus and Call and Blue Duck? How was I to know that for the next three years, every time I got on a plane, and I got on a lot of them, seats would be littered with well-thumbed copies of Lonesome Dove. On the other hand I never saw anybody with a copy of No Name on the Bullet, my biography of Audie Murphy \(see, I have to it’s some gimlet-eyed Soldier of Fortunetype clutching a greasy, broken-backed copy stolen from some public library in some godforsaken midwestern state. Eti yen extended quotation doesn’t enrely catch, alas, the texture, flexiility, and comic affection of Gra ham’s public voice, but it can give a literary snapshot of the range of his attention: that brief passage from “Anything for Larry” is about Larry McMurtry, about pop-cult faddism, about the puzzlingly resilient romance and mass appeal of the mythology of the West, about the ephemeral vagaries of authorship and readership, and even about the dubious ground of contemporary patriotism. It’s a lot to pack into a small space, and yet Graham like Willie himself rephrasing a classic tune performs this intricate sleight-of-hand with an elegant, throwaway charm that makes it appear utterly effortless. Although Giant Country, as MAY 22, 1998 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 25 /71 4-1 4. T