This summer I moved to Houston to take a job teaching in the psychology department of Lamar University, which is located 100 miles east, in the heart of East Texas. East Texas is a place you have to learn to love. I interviewed on a couple of grey days, and the oil refineries, flat landscape, and often run-down looking neighborhoods had me sure I would want to turn the job down. Yet I found myself drawn to the people, and reassured myself that I have loved everywhere I’ve lived (except Rochester, NY when I was 3-4), so why not East Texas? Six months into the job, I can’t say that East Texas is beautiful. It is still often pretty bleak, although I have come to love the sky above the open grassland on my commute, and the rivers and estuaries and farmland with all sorts of hoofed creatures that I pass on my drive. And I love the people here. They are kind, and real, and full of heart.
Early in my time with my students, they learned what a ravenous reader I am, and started making recommendations. The book I just finished was one of them. This memoir is set in “Leechfield,” a stand-in for Groves, TX, which is actually where I get my hair done now. The book does a wonderful job of evoking all that is good and bad and simply true in East Texas. I love being able to picture it 50 years ago through hearing Mary Karr narrate the audio. I feel like I have done a good job with my Texas book for the Around the US tour. This one really is about place.
In the house, Daddy slipped his jean jacket over a kitchen stool. We were fixin’ to eat, he said. Leica unstacked the white melamine picnic plates on the plywood bar. They looked crude as Flintstone plates after our Colorado china. Each had 3 plastic compartments so you could keep your butter beans out of your greens and the greens’ potliquor from soggin’ up your cornbread. Daddy stood at the stove working with a long wooden spoon inside a pot of something muddy. He dribbled water from the silver kettle into the pot, and I heard it loosen up. In a few minutes you could smell garlic and pork back and then came the idea of sheer celery slices in a mess of red beans and rice.
Like the selection I have excerpted here, this memoir as a whole does a great job of capturing the ethos of small East Texas towns in the 1960s. They are hard places, dominated by oil refineries and muggy heat. The children play by “slow racing” their bikes behind pesticide trucks spraying DDT to kill mosquitos that bring sleeping sickness. The men are hard-drinking, tall-tale telling, bar brawling working men, but this doesn’t make them bad fathers. The story of Pokey and her older sister is the story of this life, and of the dramatic swings it takes because of their mother’s drinking and attacks of “nervous” which can turn dramatic with little warning. Mary Karr’s narrative style is relaxed, at times funny, always evocative. If you want a taste of East Texas life, this isn’t a bad way to get it.