Book Review: Mr. Texas
Lawrence Wright’s newest novel isn’t just Mr. Smith Goes to Austin
Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., Nov. 10, 2023
At times while reading Pulitzer Prize-winning, Austin-based writer Lawrence Wright's new novel, Mr. Texas, I couldn't help thinking of Frank Capra's 1939 film classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, starring Jimmy Stewart as a naive, idealistic, greenhorn politician who tries to navigate the endemic corruption in the nation's capital. While this smart, quite funny, satirical novel may not pretend to be Mr. Smith Goes to Austin, the broad strokes are certainly evident. Particularly striking, however, is just how up-to-the-minute Wright's story is in addressing the issues at hand, as if ripped from this week's headlines – health care for women, public school funding, renewable resources, immigration, LGBTQ concerns, highly partisan politics, and there's even the sly mention of a corrupt attorney general. Oh, my!
Sonny Lamb is a rancher and Iraq War veteran from Presidio County whose unfulfilled life suddenly changes when lobbyist L.D. Sparks views him on local TV rescuing a child and her horse from a burning barn. He immediately decides Lamb would make a perfect replacement for the district's formerly entrenched but recently deceased state representative. Despite having never voted and running against a far more qualified candidate, he ultimately squeaks out a victory spurred by an L.D.-orchestrated smear campaign against his opponent. The subsequent caveat being that Lamb is expected to be a rubber stamp on legislative bills that benefit L.D.'s super wealthy oil and gas industry clients, the public's interest be damned.
Although Lamb is a Republican representing a conservative constituency, and the lowest man on the House totem pole, his naivete of the corrupt pay-to-play system and his openness to new ideas often cause conflict with his colleagues. These clashes enable Wright to have some fun showing us just how the sausage is made: As you might imagine, it's not a pretty sight.
Wright (best known for his Pulitzer-winning The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11) really nails his characters, almost to the point of stereotyping. There's the aforementioned smarmy lobbyist, L.D.; the holier-than-thou deep East Texan Lurleen Klump; the sharp, ambitious, San Antonio liberal Angela Martinez; the dyed-in-the-wool, reactionary good ol' boy Carl Kimball; and the odious oil billionaire Odell Peeples, just for starters. I would have loved to see more of newscaster Mary Margaret McAllister, a likely stand-in for Molly Ivins, but she fades from view all too soon. To boot, Wright is spot-on in capturing the salty, expressive language of these Texan prototypes, from the shamelessly politically incorrect to the gallantly inspiring. There are even some nice Austin shout-outs, like the Pecan Grove RV Park, the hike-and-bike trail on Lady Bird Lake, and, of course, a dip in Barton Springs.
But the heart and soul of the book lies with House Speaker Big Bob Bigbee, who inhabits the towering persona of late Texas Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock. It's a common truism throughout the book that nobody loves Texas more than Big Bob, and although he plays the political game as well as anyone, at the end of the day he is the moral center around which all the characters and the story revolve.
It is partly through Bigbee that Wright expresses his sincere concern and ultimate regret for Texas' ruthlessly partisan politics and its mean, heartless social policies, reflected in a shocking absence of compassion for far too many of its citizens. He pointedly reminds us that in a few short decades Texas will the nation's largest state, bigger than California and New York combined, so what happens here will determine the future of America. Wright tends to be optimistic. I'm not so sure.
Lawrence Wright will be in conversation with Marc Winkelman at the Texas Book Festival Sat., Nov. 11, 4:15pm at First United Methodist Church, 1201 Lavaca.Mr. Texas: A Novel
by Lawrence Wright
Alfred A. Knopf, 336 pp., $29