Texas and Pick-up Sticks

Why do so many troubling hometown novels come out of Texas? What is it about the place that nurtures the dark, bleaker undercurrent of the imagination? After all, Texas is a sunny place with lots of determinedly smiling faces. But so too are California and Colorado. Yet neither calved The Last Picture Show – or the chainsaw sagas.

Huntsville’s prison - Texas

Huntsville’s prison “farms”: thinly disguised slavery in the 1960s & ‘70s.

Something simmers in Texas, slithering under its bright and brittle surfaces, which oozes into art in very uncomfortable ways.

The sources of the ooze boil down to a couple of things. One is Texas’ no-holds-barred wealth juxtaposed against pockets of enervating poverty. The great Lone Star State has always had a large impoverished population and a public educational and welfare system that keeps it that way – plus the space to keep the poor more or less out of sight. It was blacks in the 1960s, Hispanics now.

Race relations may have developed their good-‘ol-boy sheen of we’re-all-in-this-together, but dig down through the tax returns and White Texas continues to keep and control the wealth. Big time: WASPs in; browns and blacks out. It’s not healthy, or viable, in the long term. But just look at those blue skies smiling down on us!

Perhaps the greater source of the ooze may simply be the State’s raw hucksterism. No other place in the Union has staked so much of its self-esteem for so long on the stumpiest of mythologies – the cowboy – and on promoting it relentlessly. Its vehicles? The “stalwart” loners; the “rugged” entrepreneurs (yesterday’s wild-catters; today’s frackers), the “heroic” football captains (they’re all heroes for scoring a touchdown), the endless homecoming queens, the outlandish mansions, the most sprawling shopping malls and sports stadiums, the big-ass ranch frontings, the “best” bar-b-que, the “best” museums (imported wholesale, damn the cost), the best whatever-you-want because we’re Texas. Each stemming just a little bit, however unconsciously, from the cosmology of the self-made cowboy – that tiny blip in Lone Star history that lasted maybe 30 years before the railways swept all the drunken cowpokes and their horses aside as irrelevant.

Razzle-dazzle - Texas

Razzle-dazzle: hustle the bustling crowds into the stadium.

For any hucksterism to thrive, it must shore itself up with great constant gobs of moxie, bravado, po-faced lying; call it what you will. And the particular glue that Texas uses to keep its mythology from flying apart mixes in all those elements with a heavy dose of surface machismo. This helps explain the State’s fearsome tele-preachers, its gung-ho business leaders, the “gruff” football coaches and fanatic fans, the jingoistic governors, the environment-be-damned country clubs, the Hill Country’s “wild African game” slaughter ranches, the alcohol-addled fraternities and, not least, the State’s militant Creationism. Roll all that together and you get the myth of the defiant soldier / pioneer / homesteader / entrepreneur / Injun-and-government-hating hero of the frontier. Or the First World War. Or Korea. Or ‘Nam. Or US presidential race X. Choose.

Machismo and the failure to sustain it lay at the heart of McMurtry’s masterpiece, of course. Such a failure gnaws at the ego (and the sexual id) in strange ways, creating fertile ground for hypocrisy, arrogance, obsession and much worse. Those who manage to pull it off (and survive psychically) can, admittedly, succeed in big flashy ways. Those who don’t…well, too often they sink into the ooze: the preacher man fondling the hairy gigolo; the big-hatted mayor imprisoned for fraud; the former football captain turned meth addict, the magnate’s suicide.

Machismo takes a lot of forms in Texas: racial, economic, sexual, cultural. And in Pick-up Sticks, Sev and Lamar are no exception to the malaise, each sliding into the muck in his own way…pulling others down with them, sooner or later.