It is understandably a natural lot in life for former Texas Observer editors to write books of political nonfiction, and many—Ronnie Dugger, Molly Ivins, Robert Sherrill, Lou Dubose, Nate Blakeslee and Jake Bernstein, among others—have done so. But political novels from the Observer’s ranks have been less common. Former managing editor Billy Lee Brammer wrote one such, The Gay Place, based in Austin’s political milieu, which has stood for 50-plus years as an acknowledged masterpiece. In 2006, former co-editor Karen Olsson offered Waterloo, a novel about a reporter assigned to cover a story involving a newly elected state representative in a thinly veiled Austin. But that’s been about it.
Now former Observer editor (and current Houston Chronicle “Native Texan” columnist) Joe Holley has written his own version of the regional political tale. It’s called The Purse Bearer, and like Brammer and Olsson, Holley has drawn characters bathed in resemblance to real-life people, but subject to the teasing and obligatory disclaimer: This protagonist is not representative of, say, Ann Richards or, for that matter, any other Texas politico, dead or alive.
The Purse Bearer revolves around a central character, Wily T. Foxx, who is given the opportunity to quit his job collecting animal carcasses for the Texas Highway Department and go to work on the 1980 gubernatorial campaign of Rose Marie “Red” Ryder. Wily’s primary duty is to haul proverbial water for Red, which includes toting her purse while she stumps on the campaign trail. The portrait rendered is that of a manly cowboy type who deigns to work in service to the ambitions of a hard-nosed woman who is not above administering drive-by ass-chewings to her campaign staff. You can think of the combative Red Ryder as Bob Bullock in a dress (the charismatic candidate also happens to hold the office of state comptroller). It may be not entirely coincidental that Joe Holley once worked in the trenches for candidate Ann Richards.
Inevitable but unconvincing disclaimers aside, the novel abounds with references to the culture of Central Texas, and part of the fun is indulging the temptation to play pin-the-tail on the real people and locales of Texas’ political milieu. A hamburger joint called Grungy’s has an analog in Dirty’s, on Austin’s Guadalupe Street. A politician very much like Barbara Jordan makes a cameo in the character of Congresswoman Edwina Owens.
At times, though, the exaggerated caricatures of The Purse Bearer grate on the evolving sensibilities of present-day Texans. Many of us have shed our regional twangs, or never had them in the first place, and yet Holley delivers sentences such as this one, describing one character’s urge to step onto a honky-tonk dance floor: “But like an old mama cow headed down a tick-dip chute, he didn’t have any choice in the matter.” Did people still think like this, even in the 1980s?
Festooned with insider references, Holley’s novel should be a certified hoot for a certain subset of readers steeped in the hothouse of Texas politics. Outsiders are more likely to be left lukewarm.