Trillin on Texas
University of Texas Press: 184 pp, $22
Calvin Trillin is a man of principle.
He can’t stand, for instance, people who talk about themselves in the third person, which made things difficult back in the days of Dole and Dukakis. He once declared that people caught trying to sell macramé should be, themselves, “dyed a natural color.” And of writers, he once said: “There is no progress” — no corporate world to fall back on, no middle management. Writers are as good as the last thing they wrote, and sometimes not even that.
Atop that bedrock of curious dogma, Trillin has built an itinerant and confounding career.
He is viewed as a consummate New York writer, though he grew up in the sturdy Midwest. He was a big wheel in the Ivy League, though he relishes kicking the pedestals beneath those who were big wheels in the Ivy League. He became an early and influential guru of regional cuisine, though he professed to know next to nothing about the subject.
During his prolific 50 years, in the New Yorker and other publications and in 27 books, Trillin has tackled a ridiculous array of subjects: politics and culture, Americana and adventure, lore and history, catfish and milkshakes, even — famously — parking.
So in his latest book, “Trillin on Texas,” it is surprising and even mesmerizing to watch Trillin return — sort of — to his roots.
Trillin’s fans know he was the son of a Kansas City, Mo., grocer, but it turns out his family of Ukrainian Jews traced its arrival in the United States to an unlikely port: Galveston, Texas.
In the early 1900s, thousands of Jewish families were brought to Galveston — among them, Trillin’s grandparents and father. This was a social program; many of the families had been traumatized by the era’s pogroms. But like most everything in Texas, it was an exercise in capitalism too. Just a few years earlier, Galveston had been a cosmopolitan hub of finance and culture. Then came the hurricane of 1900, still the deadliest to strike the United States; the Galveston Movement, as it was known, was one of the ways the city tried in vain to recapture its luster.
“Trillin on Texas” is a collection of Trillin’s travels there (most pieces previously appeared in the New Yorker). His writing is as always understated and cordial, which works especially well in Texas. Maybe that’s because Texans view their state as a stand-alone republic, and they’re not really joking about that. Indeed, the state is such a vast and varied place that it provides Trillin a peg on which to hang all of his hats — poet, historian, satirist, journalist — not to mention a platform for a favorite pursuit, mocking the Bushes.
At times, Trillin gets caught in the trap that many visiting writers stumble into — treating Texas, as one might treat Florida, as an unserious place where things happen that simply don’t happen anywhere else. This occurs, for instance, when he recounts the tale of two teenagers caught in Waco with $482,662 in cash. The townsfolk conclude that the bad guys aren’t the teenagers who took the money but the government trying to make them give it back.
Some anecdotes are 40 years old. Old doesn’t mean bad, of course. Trillin writes, for instance, about a Houston that I missed when I was stationed there for The Times — a Houston where a black activist was sentenced to 30 years for giving away one joint, where a grand dragon declared that the Ku Klux Klan couldn’t have been so bad if so many police officers were members. By the time I got there, injustice wore a nice suit; all Enron ever did was manipulate electric grids and rob people’s life savings. I felt, as a journalist, a little cheated.
Anyway, Trillin clearly thrills at the blood sport of Texas politics; he recalls that early in the AIDS crisis, a Texas pol was so worried he wore shower caps on his feet while bathing during a trip to San Francisco. That tells you a fair amount about the place. But today in Texas, patriotism is celebrated by threatening to secede from the union, and the governor recently shot a coyote while jogging, which sounded like a fair-enough fight, except the gun was laser-sighted and loaded with hollow-point bullets. For a writer, Texas politics never stops giving; I suggest that Trillin return not so much because his stories are stale but because it just seems he would enjoy himself immensely.
Some of Trillin’s most acclaimed writing has been about food, and he does not disappoint here. Many of the great food writers of late have approached the subject not as gourmands but as eaters; I once teared up when R.W. Apple Jr., writing in the New York Times, recalled his love affair with the mangosteen, a tropical fruit I’ve still never tried. Trillin too is at his folksy best when visiting a renowned barbecue restaurant open only on Saturdays, run by a woman named Miss Tootsie, and a man who once worked as a rodeo clown, a prison guard and an auctioneer.
Indeed, Trillin’s stories soar when they illustrate that Texas is less a collection of nation-states and more a collection of individualists and iconoclasts — folks just like him, in a sense.
We meet a feminist reformer; quirky immigration lawyers; a rancher who refused to pay school taxes after the high school started translating football announcements into Spanish — and he sat on the school board. We meet a rare-book dealer nicknamed Austin Squatty, known for spinning wild yarns at his poker games. When challenged, Squatty would reply: “Let’s see hands. How many want a good story and how many want the truth?” It is a rare, deft observer who can deliver both — a good story and the truth — and that’s carried Trillin far. This time, it’s carried him clear across Texas.
Gold was The Times’ Houston bureau chief from 2002 to 2006.