Richard Parker’s Lone Star Nation Explains Texas to Non-Texans


Brad Tyer

A version of this story ran in the November 2014 issue.

Above: Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America
By Richard Parker
352 pages; $27.95

It is a current rule of the publishing business that nonfiction book titles must contain implied colons, as per Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America. The colon is merely implied on the book’s cover because colons are ugly, and because a cover can convey a hierarchy of phrases graphically. But on a typographical line like this one you need the colon, because LONE STAR NATION HOW TEXAS WILL TRANSFORM AMERICA, while decipherable, is inelegant.

You also need the colon to separate your title from your story; everything after the colon tells the story. A book’s cover, in contemporary publishing, must reveal the entire story, because how can book buyers know whether they will like a book enough to buy it if they first have to read it to find out what it’s even about?

(Even fiction, with its exponentially more obscure titles, is moving toward the colon. You can at least let readers know up front that you’re selling : a novel.)

There is currently a rash of these colon books about Texas. Publishers seem to think that readers the world over spend long hours compiling lists of questions about Texas, all of which begin with the word “how.”

Books explaining Texas to the rest of America are a longstanding tradition, but the current glut seems to have started in 2012 with Gail Collins’ As Texas Goes…: How the Lone Star State Hijacked the American Agenda, which, aside from pioneering an awkward conjunction of ellipsis and colon, made a solid case that Texas and Texans wield a lot of national political power.

Then, in 2013, came Texas Monthly staffer Erica Grieder’s Big, Hot, Cheap, and Right: What America Can Learn from the Strange Genius of Texas (forgoing the standard “how” for “what”), which convincingly explicated what that part after the colon said.

Just in the past month, the Observer has reviewed Wayne Thorburn’s Red State: An Insider’s Story of How the GOP Came to Dominate Texas Politics, and Rough Country: How Texas Became America’s Most Powerful Bible-Belt State, by Robert Wuthnow. This summer we didn’t review Lone Star America: How Texas Can Save Our Country, by Mark Davis, with a foreword by Sean Hannity.

And now comes Lone Star Nation: How Texas Will Transform America by Richard Parker, a respected national journalist who calls Wimberley home.

The story that comes after Parker’s implied colon shares with these other titles both its implication of a question (How will Texas transform America?) and its begging of one (Will, in fact, Texas transform America?).

Let’s note right now that “how” goes effectively unanswered. Parker’s book is not an investigation of an accomplished event or an exercise in reverse engineering. It can’t be. It posits a speculative result—Texas’ transformation of America—and purports to track its accomplishment in real time. This is an impossible task—i.e., clairvoyant journalism. But let’s cut “how” some slack and get to the root. Will Texas transform the nation? Well, sure. Seems likely. It’s a big, rich, growing state with a lot of electoral votes.

Point being: Most of these books aren’t asking genuine questions, and they don’t offer genuine answers. They could and perhaps should all be subtitled: “Lemme Tell Ya the Real Story About Texas.” And because Texas is thought to present such a mythic face to the world, the market for myth subverters is evergreen. It’s just a matter of how many ways you can rephrase the question. You think Texas doesn’t matter quite as much as Texas thinks it does? Gail Collins is here to correct you. You think Texas is pretty crappy at educating kids, tolerating women and electing credible representation? Allow Erica Grieder to show you how much ass we actually kick. Are you under the impression that Texas is going to just sit idly by and leave America unmolested by its transformative mojo? Richard Parker is prepared to tell you a thing or two.

Most of these books aren’t asking genuine questions, and they don’t offer genuine answers. And because Texas is thought to present such a mythic face to the world, the market for myth subverters is evergreen.

Lone Star Nation’s primary counter-mythical insights are three: 1) in order to retain its global economic competitiveness, the state will have to figure a way to provide top-flight education to the fast-growing population of poorer-than-middle-class Mexican-Americans that is quickly becoming the state’s primary human resource—a task at which Texas currently fails spectacularly; 2) deregulatory Republicans may be (but probably aren’t) responsible for any economic miracle, per se, but the cronyistic do-nothing monopoly party is a drag on the state that will eventually sink under its own dead weight—i.e., yes, Virginia, Texas will turn purple, if not blue, and probably well before the decade is out; and 3) all due respect to Rick Perry, I can’t remember the third thing.

Kidding. It’s climate change, which Parker conflates with drought and posits quite rightly as a potential game-changer if Texas doesn’t address it, which Texas doesn’t.

And here you may be wondering, if you place much weight on post-colon subtitles: Wait a minute, how is Texas doing what now again?

The most concisely Parker comes to explicating his thesis is on page 224: “Texas remained largely the same for thousands of years of human history. But right now, in front of our very eyes, it is changing. It is changing, too, the very nature of America itself. And it will continue doing so while being paradoxically more like America, too—and yet, particular and distinct.”

This is an inefficient way of saying hardly anything at all, and it would be unfair to quote it if its imprecision weren’t representative. Lone Star Nation has the feel of a book that was written in not much more time than it took to type it. And in trying to squeeze a theme out of a hastily assembled collection of data points and anecdotes, Parker never seems to find a quite comfortable or consistent voice. One minute he sounds like a perfectly professional reporter, checking out the Texas Tribune Festival or chatting with an editor at Texas Monthly. The next he’s expounding on J. Frank Dobie and playing Hill Country naturalist. And the next he’s going all apoca-dystopic on your ass.

For most of the book, though, Parker rehashes 2013 and 2014 headlines, from Wendy Davis’ filibuster to Rick Perry’s Enterprise Fund to the flood that washed out the creek near Parker’s place in Wimberley. The rush of contemporary news tilts the book toward current events and muddies the predictive waters. Lone Star Nation finally isn’t so much a description of a future influence as it is a prescription, a choose-your-own-adventure morality tale, the lesson of which, aimed at policymakers, I guess, is basically this: Governmental Texas must embrace change or suffer dire consequences.

As myth-busting insight goes, this is relatively thin soup, and the book’s producers clearly sensed it, having appended to the manuscript 15 pages of “References and Works Consulted” (mostly newspapers and magazines, including two full pages citing articles written by Richard Parker), 13 pages listing “Famous Texans: The Texas 300,” and four pages of “Texas In Quotes,” in case you care to see what Kelly Clarkson thinks.

Richard Parker is a veteran journalist with bylines in all the better publications. Lone Star Nation is his first book and a pretty obvious play for a perch in the national punditry. If Davis becomes governor, and especially if Perry runs for president again, non-Texans will again cast about for Texans to explain Texas. Parker knows the state as well as anybody writing here, and better than most, and so one can earnestly hope that Lone Star Nation earns him a place on the podium, or at the lectern, or in the studio, or wherever. But there’s not much point in recommending this book to Texans. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, you’ve already read the news.