Sunday, 17 July 2016

Houston, we read you

I’ve just read two recent books set in Texas suburbia – and they’re character-driven, inventive and humane

Texan literature is nearly 500 years old. That’s if you count the extraordinary adventures of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. He was put ashore in far-away Florida in 1528, along with other members of a Spanish expedition, charged with reaching the modern-day Tampico in Mexico, which the expedition commander believed to be only a day or two’s march away. It was of course closer to 1,500 miles. Virtually no-one from the party survived, but Cabeza de Vaca did and left an extraordinary account of his journey through Texas and his (cordial) relations with the natives. La Relación y Comentarios del Gouernador Aluar Nuñez Cabeca de Vaca was completed in 1537. Its author was later appointed governor of present-day Argentina and Paraguay, where the settlers grassed him up to Madrid for being too nice to the natives. But with La Relación, he left us what is, I suppose, the first piece of Texan literature.

Not everyone who has travelled through Texas has been as impressed as Cabeza de Vaca. According to the Texas Handbook Online, Frederick Law Olmsted – the famed landscaper whose works include Central Park – recorded  in Journey Through Texas (1857) “a grim picture of slavery-ridden East Texas, indicting the people as crude, the food as bad, and the level of civilization as negligible.” But the 20th century has, by all accounts, seen quite a vibrant literature emerge in Texas, and it has produced distinguished pieces such as Katherine Ann Porter’s Pale Horse, Pale Rider, and John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me. The most prominent Texan writer today is probably Larry McMurtry, known for the Lonesome Dove series but also the joint screenwriter for the film version of E. Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain.

I’ve just read two recent books by Texan, or part-Texan, writers. Kevin Cole was born in New York and now lives in Europe, but was brought up in Houston. Kristin Joyce Stevenson is from Austin; she too lived in Europe for some years, but has recently returned home. Their novels are rooted in their home towns. Both books are highly intelligent and very character-driven, and they are well worth your time.

It’s 1987. Sam Hay is a 17-year-old from a grotty part of Sheffield in England. His parents are dead, his sister a recovering alcoholic. Not a lot to lose really, so he enrolls as an exchange student and heads for high school in Houston. Totally amoral and nihilistic, he means to make his McMansion host family fund him through college. Along the way, he’ll slag off everything about them, their suburb, his American fellow-students and Texas in general while doing as many drugs as possible. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, as it happens. Over the course of this long but gripping book, Sam’s going to be slammed up hard against his own cynicism, and forced to think about values. But when he does, it might just be too late.

I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like Kevin Cole’s Days of Throbbing Gristle. (The title is likely significant, but more of that anon.) It is a tour de force on two levels. First, it certainly works as a coming-of-age story. The story’s told entirely through Sam’s eyes; it needs real skill to do character development that way, but Cole can do it. You start to see that Sam’s contempt for others, and his monstrous cynicism, come in part from anger. It takes Sam a long time to accept what an utter shit he has been to those around him. In the meantime he uses someone for sex and then rejects them in a way that will have awful consequences. He also accepts the loyalty and friendship of others but despises them, and gives them nothing in return. Only at the end does he realize they might have understood him better than he thought. 

However, the book’s not just about Sam. It is also a quite savage look at 1980s Texas suburbia. Cole’s plot device of looking through the eyes of an English exchange student lets him describe it from an outsider’s viewpoint. He serves up a big parade of characters –a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a teenage gay tortured by his sexuality, skinheads, metal fans, strippers, struggling workers and assorted lowlifes, drug-dealers and drunks. The cast includes Sam’s soulless hosts, Neil and Donna – the latter, especially, is an authentic suburban monster. Yet in a series of casual conversations Neil has with Sam, you get to understand what has formed these people. In general, no-one in this book is two-dimensional. Seeing them, and Houston, through Sam’s eyes also works because although he’s a shit, he’s a very funny one. He’s dragged to a rodeo: “I could think of better things to excite deranged senses than wandering round an ammonia-scented fairground, gazing at cattle sporting epic lengths of snot hanging from snouts.” He handles it by dropping acid.

But Days of Throbbing Gristle is also dark. The darkness seeps in via Scott and Iris, two drug dealers who have espoused a cruel form of film-making as a performance art and who preach a deep nihilism. Their chief acolyte likes to listen to the English punk band Throbbing Gristle. Cole doesn’t say so, but Throbbing Gristle were performance artists before they were musicians. Is he trying to warn us, through Scott and Iris, through Sam, that amorality, nihilism, selfishness and self-display are dead ends? Each reader’s going to work this out for themselves.

The book isn’t perfect. There are some text errors here and there – words misplaced or consistently misspelled (Cole writes very well and I think these are software glitches, not mistakes). Also, the book is long. It kept my attention, but some readers might flag a little.
Even so, Days of Throbbing Gristle is very good indeed. Sam and his friends are going to stay with me for quite a while, as will a lot of the scenes – the rodeo on acid; a tawdry lapdance; a day with petty crooks and people-smugglers; and Donna losing it with her teenage daughter. There’s also an unexpectedly lyrical sojourn in the Texas Hills; this was one of the best chapters for me. This is a savagely observed and very funny book, but it also has hidden depths, and a certain compassion for its characters. I hope there’s more to come from Kevin Cole.

No book is easy to write. But for a thriller, romance or genre book, there are probably ground rules a writer can follow. A novel that depends almost entirely on characterization is extremely hard to do. In Frankie & Cash Kristin Joyce Stevenson does pull it off, creating a small but vivid cast of characters; when you think you’re done with the book, they stay with you and you go on thinking about their motivations, what shaped them, and exactly what they meant to each other and why.

The book opens in Austin, Texas. It’s the present day and narrator Anita, a woman in her late 30s, is sitting in a bar with Cash, a man of about the same age. They’re waiting for Frankie, who’s back on a rare visit after the death of her father. Frankie knows she’s going to see Anita, after a gap of many years. She doesn’t know she’s going to see Cash again. As the narrative of this meeting proceeds, Stevenson skillfully interweaves it with the story of these three people’s intense relationship when they were teenagers in suburban Austin 20 years earlier. This “back story” moves to San Francisco as the three make their way through a haze of drugs and booze. One of them struggles with mental illness. And throughout, there are underlying themes of thwarted ambition, tangled friendships and jealousies, and shadows from difficult childhoods.

When the three come together in Austin after so long, we’re wondering how they will interact, and whether each will recognize what the others have become. Meanwhile there’s a series of vignettes from the trio’s lives. They experiment with drugs and sex, first in Texas and later in San Francisco, where they face the forces that finally lever them apart. When they come together years later, we see them reverting to type, and see, more clearly, what went wrong. One of Stevenson’s skills is that she knows what to say and what to leave out. This isn’t a long novel (about 55,000 words – much shorter than Throbbing Gristle). But a lot is inferred rather than explained. You’re not usually told “Frankie did X because Y”, and that’s why these three stay with you; you want to know what was really going on, and you know the answer is in there somewhere.

We’re also left asking about social media. Thirty years ago, tracking down someone from your youth was a paper-chase or a series of phone calls, and often the trail went cold. Unless you really wanted to find someone, you probably wouldn’t bother. Today it takes seconds to enter a name. Even if someone no longer uses the same surname, they can likely be tracked through mutual acquaintances. So you can now find someone easily after 10 or 15 years. But should you? Why did you part in the first place – and will anything really have changed? At the end of the book, it turns out that that the three cannot all handle these questions equally well.

Both Frankie & Cash and Days of Throbbing Gristle are striking in the way they depict people, the way they think of and relate to each other, what they want from others, and why. Frederick Law Olmsted  might have been right in 1857. But the level of civilization, it seems, isn’t negligible now. 

 Mike Robbins's novella Dog! is available as an ebook for just 99c (US) or 99p (UK), or as a paperback, from  Amazon (US, UK, and all other country sites), Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Indigo, iTunes and more. Find all his books on Amazon here.

Follow Mike Robbins on Twitter (mikerobbins19), on Facebook or on Goodreads


  1. You're very good at reviewing books, Mike, without giving away too much. Nice job!

    1. Thank you!
      I seriously recommend these two. Incidentally when I reviewed it, Frankie & Cash wasn't available as an eBook; it is now, and is good value.