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Book Review

Michener Gets the Draw on Texas

November 21, 1985|PETER LaSALLE | LaSalle, author of the novel "Strange Sunlight" (Texas Monthly Press), lives in Austin, Tex. and

Texas by James A. Michener (Random House: $12.95)

If there was ever a perfect subject for the new institutional James A. Michener "blockbuster best seller," to borrow from the old publishing jargon, it has to be Texas.

Michener likes to turn out big novels about big topics, as suggested by the titles of his last two tomes, "Space" and "Poland." But after all, Texas is Texas, and in the American imagination it has long stood for magnitude itself, surely much bigger in its way than the space race or an old European land--or even huge Alaska, where Michener reportedly is now researching his next one.

So here we have "Texas," a fictional outing just about the same length as the Modern Library edition of Tolstoy's "War and Peace." It is a chronicle of the place and its people from the arrival of the early Spanish explorers in the 16th Century, to its declaring itself an independent republic in 1836, to its present day of glassy cities and new problems now that the oil market is off--not to mention some who are questioning how long the water reserves will be able to sustain the state's recent Sun Belt boom.

The Spirit of Texas Past

Michener's novels don't really have plots, but rather strategies to convey the mounds of information on the subject. Therefore, with the Texas sesquicentenary approaching, a "task force" is appointed by the governor in 1983 to meet with various experts throughout the state and "define the essentials" of Texas' past. Discussions involving the task force members--a Texas A&M professor named Efrain Garza, a Fort Worth oil baron named Ransom Rusk, et al.--alternate with chapters set in Texas history, where the characters are the ancestors of those on the committee.

For instance, one of Garza's forebears remains loyal to Mexico around the time of the Alamo; one of Rusk's, the son of a government Indian agent, goes on a wildcatting spree in the 1920s, when this state of little money but such vast territories between the aqua Gulf of Mexico and the orange high plains of the Panhandle took on a new image and importance because of petroleum.

Reading this novel provides a rather mixed experience. Anybody with even the slightest taste for well-crafted fiction (a category that can include both Proust and Stephen King) can't help but wince. The prose is sadly lackluster and cliche-ridden--hearts "miss a beat" and that sort of thing. The dialogue is often solid oak, and I wonder if John Wayne himself would have gone along with having to deliver lines like these from an 1885 frontiersman on that matter of bigness: "Life in Texas is like a big crap game, a perpetual gamble. To succeed you need grit, courage to take the big chance. Those who succeed, succeed big. A hundred men tried to drive cattle up this trail. They failed."

Michigan Girl Makes Good

And when it comes to character and happenings, don't look for nuance. A modern teen-age girl from Michigan sulks about her family's moving to the state, making fun of one teacher's reverence for everything Texan. Yet she grows to love her new home, and eventually lands a job as (yes) the chief baton twirler at the University of Texas and later marries (yes) a football star there who goes on to play for (yes, yes) Tom Landry's legendary Dallas Cowboys.

On the other hand, there is enough sense of the complexity of the issues to frequently make this engaging reading. With feeling and frankness, Michener probes some sticky truths. One is the ill treatment in the past of the state's Mexican-American population, despite that people's pre-Anglo ties to the land. Another is the tough, honorable pride of modern Texans and the independence they stand for.

Do-It-Yourself Mesquite Floor

The best sections are those task force discussions; there Michener seems at ease, giving his personalized historical and sociological interpretation a bit more straightforwardly and journalistically, less in the guise of fiction. All the information is here, including detailed instructions on how to install in a contemporary home a handsome, silicone-sealed mesquite floor, the latest in Lone Star chic. Texas is Texas.

It doesn't take a shrewd oilman with a studio name like Ransom Rusk to tell you that recent Michener fare isn't so much high literature as it is business-- big business, pardner.

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