Don Graham's book of essays, Giant Country: Essays on Texas (TCU Press, $22.50 hard) is as welcome as a couple thousand extra BTU's and a tray of margaritas in the midst of the blast-furnace heat of the most miserable summer in memory. With his finely tuned sense of what it means to be Texan inside and out, this spiky blend of ironic humor and observation is a cool tonic for smart Texans everywhere.
Graham is the J. Frank Dobie Professor at UT and teaches Dobie's legendary course, "Life and Literature of the Southwest," and in this volume, the essay "Pen Pals: Dobie, Bedichek, and Webb" (largely about that trio's little-known passion for dirty jokes) should convince readers that the legacy of that holy triumvirate is relatively safe in Graham's hands.
In "The Filadelphia Story" Graham explores a phenomenon experienced by countless expatriate Texans: Taking up residence somewhere besides the Lone Star State, one may encounter all sorts of myths, misconceptions, and anti-Texan bias for the first time. During Graham's years teaching at Penn State, he experienced yet another exile-related phenomenon: He rediscovered his Texanness.
Leavened by an occasional dose of crankiness, there's lots of humor and wit here, even in veins frequently mined by other Texas scribes. Regarding The Streets of Laredo, Larry McMurtry's prequel to Lonesome Dove, Graham comments, "The death toll in this novel is so great that you wonder how anybody West of the Pecos ever survived to build a Dairy Queen." Graham also trains his critical eye on some of the most important (if not always most accurate) celluloid slices of the Texan experience. I particularly appreciated Graham's several tips of the hat to the late, great cowboy actor Ben Johnson (actually an Oklahoman, but that matters little), his ruminations on Howard Hawks' classic, Red River, and his evaluation of two of the best contemporary Texas movies: A Perfect World and Flesh and Bone.
Writing about a cowboy poetry convention in Oklahoma City (the same weekend as the bombing of the federal building), Graham singles out a moment during Red Steagall's performance when the legendary songwriter lashed out against federal environmental regulation (which includes such concepts as national parks, I might add), asserting that "people in government can't take as good care of the land as its owners can." Incredibly, Graham lauds this bit of cornball and patently idiotic demagoguery as the sort of "rock-ribbed conservatism" that will probably never be understood by folks in Washington, D.C., "not being born of the land and ... disinclined to listen to those who are. "
A writer who seems to shoot from the hip, Graham does occasionally misfire. On the whole, Giant Country is overflowing with enjoyable, thought-provoking reading, making this collection not only an Aqua Velva for all thinking, reading Texans (as in, "Thanks, I needed that, Bubba"), but, like a favorite watering hole or Mexican restaurant, a good book to leave out on the coffee table for repeated visits. -Jesse Sublett