Lawrence Wright takes aim at Austin politics in novel ‘Mr. Texas’ – The Dallas Morning News

Lawrence Wright’s last novel, The End of October, was an eerily prescient thriller about the world in the grip of a pandemic. Written before anyone had heard of COVID-19, it arrived in time to entertain and frighten readers during 2020 lockdowns.

The Austin-based author is best known for his nonfiction, including The Looming Tower, a deep dive into the beginnings of al-Qaeda that won a Pulitzer Prize. Wright’s new book, Mr. Texas, arrives Sept. 19, and it’s another foray into fiction, this time a comic take on the state Legislature.

Wright is just the latest author to see the literary possibilities in Texas politics. The landscape has been offering writers a rich harvest for years, from Molly Ivins’ newspaper columns to The Gay Place, Billy Lee Brammer’s 1961 fiction classic featuring machinations in Austin.

When Mr. Texas opens, the Democrat who represented a stretch of West Texas in the Legislature has just died, and a political operator named L.D. Sparks is on the prowl for a Republican to run in a special election.

“Mr. Texas” by Lawrence Wright is the story of a rancher plucked by the Texas political machine to run for office.(Alfred A. Knopf)

Sparks is coming up empty until he sees news reports about a local rancher, Sonny Lamb, who saved a neighbor child — and her horse — from a fire. Before long, Sparks is in the living room at the Lamb ranch, pitching a political career to Sonny and his incredulous wife, Lola.

Sonny, best known at this point in Presidio County as the man who bought his own bull at auction, seems an unlikely choice. But Sparks has awakened a restlessness in the rancher, a sense that he hasn’t done much with his life.

A walk under the vast West Texas sky seals Sonny’s decision. “Nothing in your life made any difference in the countenance of the heavens bearing down on you, no more than the mountains and the cows and the rattlesnakes. After considering the vanity of ambition, especially in one so unaccomplished, Sonny recollected that he had only one life, and where was that headed?”

Wright, a native of Oklahoma who grew up in Dallas, has a perfect feel for Texas landscapes and characters, for dialects and foibles.

Even casual observers of Texas politics will catch echoes of past scandals and officials. Sonny squeaks past his vastly more qualified opponent, Valerie Nightingale, thanks to a leak that may call to mind former gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis.

Once the action moves to Austin, the author hilariously captures the unbridled absurdity that is a session of the Texas Legislature: drinking and dominoes, pig hunts, big checks from lobbyists and — occasionally — lawmaking.

Here, the novel takes a turn into Mr. Smith Goes to Washington territory. Sparks, lobbyists and the Republican power structure think they have a useful idiot who will do as he’s told. But it turns out Sonny has come to Austin with one big idea that he believes will keep West Texas from drying up and blowing away, both literally and figuratively.

The details of Sonny’s plan to bring water to West Texas aren’t important, though Wright spends a lot of time on them. All that matters is that his bill has two big strikes against it: It’s expensive, and perhaps more fatally, the oil and gas industry opposes it. But Sonny is a dog with a bone; he won’t rest until his bill gets a hearing. Ultimately, he alienates his handlers, who plot his political demise.

The action gets a little muddled in this section of the book. Sonny, the political naif, suddenly has mastered the procedures of the Texas House and turns them to his advantage. And yet despite his newfound expertise, he walks right into traps his benefactors-turned-enemies set for him.

Wright first conceived this project during Ann Richards’ governorship. It’s been staged as a play and imagined as a screenplay, a musical, a TV series and a musical podcast. He’s lived with these characters a long time, and it shows in his affection for them.

That’s true not just of Sonny, but of others: the brilliant Latina legislator trying to fulfill her mother’s dreams; the Bible-toting author of a bill to ban gays and lesbians from many professions, who believes — unlike some of the bill’s cynical supporters — that it’s sound policy; and the gay orthodontist who discovers his Republican colleagues are willing to strip him of his livelihood (because a gay man shouldn’t touch children, not even to straighten their teeth).

Readers may wish Sonny’s wife were as sharply drawn as those characters. We know Lola is tough and smart and desperate for a baby, but she’s mostly off running the ranch while Sonny is in Austin.

Mr. Texas is billed as a comic novel, and it is undoubtedly funny. But there’s a wistfulness about it, too. Wright leaves open the possibility that a group of politicians — guided by nothing more than good faith and their love of the Lone Star State — might find a way past partisan rancor and cynicism.

Could Wright be offering a glimpse of the future yet again?

Mr. Texas

By Lawrence Wright

(Alfred A. Knopf, 336 pages, $29)

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