The way to approach Texas is from space — you see the United States, the land mass south of everything looms up at the bottom of the country, Oklahoma rushes past, the sky gets dusty, boom, you're in a used-car lot outside
, humid. Texas is so daunting, I always think of Texas as a used-car lot and always imagine it from space. Which, you gather from "Trillin on Texas" (University of Texas Press, $22), is how Calvin Trillin, the longtime New Yorker writer, sees Texas — as a vast tan pancake only understood by homing close, pulling back, then diving back, then leaving. If you have never been to Texas, "Trillin on Texas" will not give you directions to
or point you to a Mexican breakfast. But it will, as only an outsider can do, reveal its character.
"On weekends, Robert Donnell likes to take the country roads," Trillin writes in "Knowing Johnny Jenkins," a New Yorker piece from 1989. "When he travels between Beaumont and Austin, where his children live with his ex-wife, he often finds himself on Farm-to-Market 969, which cuts through rich pastureland along the Colorado River east of Austin." The story, one of Trillin's best, and a showstopper in a compilation of shrewdly picked tales, meanders like that a bit, touching on the Colorado, the Humpback Bridge, a boat ramp — it's as pleasantly rambling as a Texas drive, only to stop short at an abandoned Mercedes and a book dealer found nearby, shot in the head, a twist as unexpected as any in this large, complicated place.
Trillin, a New Yorker by way of Kansas City, explains in the introduction that his Texas roots are surprisingly deep: His grandparents skipped
and got out at Galveston. It's a thin excuse for a book; a great deal of the pieces deal with the Bushes and feel only tangentially related to the state, kind of like the family itself. But any excuse to compile Trillin is a fine one, and there is a randomness to Texas that rewards the curious.
He eulogizes Molly Ivins, saluting the Texas wisecrack ("It was Molly who wrote that if a certain congressman's IQ dropped any further he'd have to be watered twice a day"), and has a great, meandery time with the story of two teenagers joyriding in a new blue Thunderbird, sitting on half a million dollars, who tell the cops they're "
runners from Chicago heading for a marijuana pickup in
A number of pieces come from the early '70s, when Trillin was roving the country, filing for The New Yorker every three weeks from a new town, visiting Texas frequently, but the subjects haven't dated much: Texas' harsh jail sentences, immigration law, petty acts of racism. The outline of a state forms, and if you still need a tour guide, might I show you to the first story, about barbecue? Stop at Snow's, about 50 miles outside Austin, where lunch is defined as that "large meal of meat that you finish just before 9 a.m."