Once a separate republic, Texas boasts that it's bigger, better and friendlier than the rest of America.
Texas native Lawrence Wright, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and New Yorker staff writer who has chosen to live in Austin rather than New York City or Los Angeles, examines his home state in "God Save Texas: A Journey Into the Soul of the Lone Star State."
Heralded for his book on Sept. 11, "The Looming Tower," and reviled by Scientologists for his expose of their religion, Wright in "God Save Texas" takes an affectionate look at Texas, blending his impressive reporting skills with an easy, conversational style.
He punctures a few Texas myths and exposes some of the state's bragging. Appalled by the extreme Republican control of the state's politics, and the decline of its progressive tradition, Wright displays his love for the state's food, music, ethnic diversity, unexpected urban sophistication, and friendliness.
Venturing from the ultraliberal state capital and home of the University of Texas, Wright travels across Texas and reports on its extreme social, economic, cultural and political differences. During his journey, he discloses a treasure chest of personal experience. The book could have been subtitled "A Journey Into the Soul of Lawrence Wright."
Reveling in Texas' unique society, Wright shows that it's also a microcosm of the United States' cultural, political and social conflicts. He sees Texas as a barometer for the country at large.
His vignettes from San Antonio, Houston, Fort Worth, Dallas and Austin show the state's major cities as liberal islands in an extremely conservative state. Houston, he points out, is the most ethnically diverse city in the country, and he traces his hometown Dallas' growth from right-wing fortress before the assassination of John F. Kennedy to tolerant international city.
The explosive growth of Austin has come with the gentrification and soaring housing costs afflicting other cities. Wright sorrowfully looks at how the city's increase in tourists and residents has brought the destruction of the special qualities the newcomers seek. He wryly concludes that the slogan "Keep Austin weird" is losing ground.
Smaller cities also receive his attention. He looks at the musical legacy of Lubbock and other towns, and the curious artistic colony of Marfa. His trip to the border city of El Paso reveals the gains and losses of Nafta.
Wright gives excellent summaries of fracking technology, early Texas history and immigration. He agrees that the border must be controlled, and that illegal immigrants from Mexico and Central America bring rising crime, but opposes the construction of a wall, especially in the unspoiled wilderness of the Big Bend National Park. As he points out, a large double fence already divides Texas and Mexico near El Paso, with uneven success at halting illegal immigration.
Another strong section outlines the growth of America's gun violence from the original mass attack carried out by University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman.
Atlantans will be amused at his dismissive views of the city's literary scene, undoubtedly outdated. After struggling as a freelancer in Atlanta, Wright found success after moving to Austin for a job at Texas Monthly magazine. His vignette on Atlanta includes the obligatory scene at the long vanished Old New York Book Shop.
"God Save Texas" is written with a meandering tone, marked by free associations. At times his digressions threaten to float away, but he generally keeps them from wandering too far from the main narrative. A few of the personal anecdotes fizzle, but most of them connect.
The rest of the country might have grown disgusted with Texas and its bragging, especially after the presidencies of Lyndon Johnson, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. Wright's affection for his native state is infectious, and he demonstrates why Texas matters to the rest of us.