MR. TEXAS, by Lawrence Wright
“Built for giants, inhabited by pygmies.” That’s what the legendary Texas politician Bob Eckhardt used to tell awe-struck visitors about the Texas Capitol. The Goddess of Liberty, who stands atop Austin’s dome, peers down 302 feet at the mortals below, 14 feet higher than the U.S. Capitol.
As a University of Texas law student in 1985, I was one of those pygmies. I worked for a 20-something cowboy turned newbie state representative. So, when I encountered Sonny Lamb, I felt like I’d known him for years.
Lamb is the protagonist of Lawrence Wright’s rollicking satire “Mr. Texas.” He is a soldier-rancher-failure who, by way of accidental heroism and a Machiavellian lobbyist, finds himself elected to the Texas Legislature. This is where Mr. Wright’s task becomes daunting: parodying politicians who are, in real life, parody-proof.
When I worked at the Legislature, the speaker of the House was Gib Lewis, a good ol’ boy from Fort Worth who loved hunting and feared polysyllabic words. He was a veritable redneck Yogi Berra. How do you satirize a place where the speaker of the House once said, “This is unparalyzed in the state’s history,” and “I cannot tell you how grateful I am; I am filled with humidity”?
Then there was the freshman Democratic representative I met, a hunky, charming Air Force veteran. He was an Al Gore supporter who wore tight jeans and adjusted himself so frequently we called him Crotch. Rick Perry went on to become a Republican, the longest-serving governor in Texas history and a member of Donald Trump’s cabinet.
Into this deeply weird reality wanders the fictional Lamb, who has won his seat in the Statehouse after his bravery in a fire made him a local celebrity. He leaves his wife, Lola, back at the ranch, but she does not pine or whine. Lola is strong, beautiful, independent. In one scene, she turns young bulls into steers. Sonny has seen combat, but he doesn’t have the stomach for castration. Lola not only cuts the calves; she dines on the residuals.
Ignoring the hint, Sonny is seduced in Austin by power, politics and Angela Martinez, a magnetic young Mexican American Democrat from San Antonio. Sonny is a Republican, and a married one at that. In one of scores of phrases that caused me to cuss myself for not thinking of it, Wright describes their night together as “a moment in which Reason was sleeping and Desire unfolded her wings.”
It is a testament to Wright’s talent that he can take a well-worn narrative arc and bend it in new ways. Sonny, it turns out, is no innocent Lamb led to slaughter. Angela is not a temptress but a complex woman, uneasily balancing ambition and autonomy. The evil lobbyist who facilitates Sonny’s rise, L.D. Sparks, has a poignant origin story, and the all-powerful speaker, Big Bob Bigbee, lives on the border of greatness and madness.
Some of the best characters in “Mr. Texas”are the Ms. Texases. Among the female characters, there’s not a weakling in the herd. Sonny’s nemesis in the Legislature is the flamboyantly anti-gay state representative Lurleen Klump. Even while pushing a sweeping defenestration of L.G.B.T.Q. rights, Klump blasts Big Oil for polluting the environment.
Sonny is no culture warrior. His passion is desalination — purifying the brackish water beneath the parched West Texas plains so it can be used for irrigation. He needs Lurleen’s help to take on the frackers who’ve contaminated the West Texas water table. She needs Sonny’s help to legislate away the gay.
As with all good Texas tales, there’s a showdown, but in Wright’s version the lines are as muddy and winding as the Brazos River. In fact, this is not really a morality tale. It’s a character study, cleverly hidden within a raucous, fast-paced, hilarious sendup.
The only one-dimensional character is the malevolent Odell Peeples, a petrochemical billionaire who finances all right-leaning politicians and speaks to the masses on his very own radio station. But at least Mr. Peeples gives us an impossible-to-forget image when he describes how he loves to spend a quiet evening alone, in a secret chamber behind the bookshelf in his office, admiring paintings by Adolf Hitler while sipping a glass of chocolate milk. Naked.
Wright won a Pulitzer Prize for “The Looming Tower,” the definitive account of 9/11. He has already written a terrific nonfiction book about the Lone Star State, “God Save Texas,” but fiction allows the stallion to bust out of the factual corral. The reader had best hold onto the rigging, because this bronco spins, bucks, kicks and bites.
Out on the range, Wright cuts loose. One politician is described as “being so far to the right that he practically stepped off the flat Earth.” The speaker barks at a nettlesome reporter: “Them jeans you’re wearing are mighty tight. You cut a fart and you’ll blow your damn boots off.” A lobbyist is “revered among her colleagues for expensing her breast implants.”
The novel is a fiery sample of the chili of Texas politics: equal parts tragedy, comedy and farce. And I haven’t even told y’all about when Sonny tries to, um, express himself at a fertility clinic while being chased by the police. I actually had to put the book down. I was laughing so hard my dog Gus was worried about me.
In a moment that perhaps serves as Wright’s thesis statement, L.D. hands Angela a pair of binoculars and tells her to zoom in on the statue of the Goddess of Liberty. Angela is surprised that, upon closer inspection, she is ugly. L.D. explains the sculptor exaggerated her facial features to make them visible from the street, but the goddess is rather hideous up close. “Like many things in politics,” he says, “she’s best examined from afar.” Wright’s book takes an up-close look at Texas politics, with all its ugliness and madness — as well as its flashes of greatness — and reminds us that none of our leaders are carved out of stone.
Paul Begala is a political strategist from Missouri City, Texas. He served as counselor to the president in the Clinton White House, and is currently a resident scholar at the University of Virginia and a political contributor for CNN. He is the author of six books about politics.
MR. TEXAS | By Lawrence Wright | 322 pp. | Alfred A. Knopf | $29