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Poised at the heart of so much open land, Amarillo, too,
sprawled in a sort of languid disregard, as though territorial hegemony might make up for all that loneliness. Route 66 cut through the center of town as a streamlined reminder of what was out there to the west, and the trucks roared through town day and night, slaves to hope and white-line fever, heading for California or just somewhere else. The steak houses and truck stops at either end of the city confirmed these great distances, offering twenty-four-ounce T-bones along with the diesel fuel, and the neon from the all-night signs must have looked from the sky like paths of light—bright flashes of pink and green and white as the town grew sparser, flanked on the highway to the east and west alike by miles of open country.
Downtown in the 1950s was only a few blocks long, and the two banks, the two movie theaters, the Silver Grill Cafeteria, and the Amarillo Grain Exchange were all within shooting distance of one another. The Mary E. Bivins Memorial Library stood on the outskirts of these necessities, on Tenth and Polk, a generous old
Georgian mansion with two sets of stone steps up to its wide verandas.
The place had been built as a private home at the turn of the century, and its interiors still held traces of domestic calm—
the foyer smelled wonderfully of floor wax and printer’s ink and no doubt years’ worth of muted librarians’ cologne. The books were spread luxuriantly over four floors, with the aisles between shelves feeling as wide as city streets. It was here that an entire generation of kids enjoyed a certain benign neglect in the scorching
Texas summers: Scores of mothers deposited their children at the library each day to snatch a few hours of freedom in between the swimming pool and the grocery store. The place was safe, it was cool (in the days before air-conditioning,we had only swamp coolers), and, with its gruff librarians posted like marines between Adult Fiction and the checkout desk, it offered a semblance of day-care-cum-self-improvement. In a city five hundred miles from the Texas Gulf Coast and a day’s car ride from the mountains of neighboring New Mexico, the town pools and the library were the closest thing a lot of people had to getting away.
Our idea of escape was an order of fries at the snack bar of the Western Riviera—a cross-shaped turquoise swimming pool slapped across the prairie like an SOS sign to God—and then the insouciant promise of the library, where you could lose yourself for hours in sanctioned daydreams.
Maybe such repositories of childhood are always graced by memory, each of them archives of that wider world to come. But for me those rooms were my Elysian fields, possessing a grandeur and reach that would blur over time but scarcely diminish after I
had taken flight. My mother drove us to the library in an old Ford station wagon, two-tone Palomino Pink, and I can see it still,
idling on the street below, as I half staggered down the stone steps with my weekly haul. There was a limit to the number of books,
probably ten or twelve, that children were allowed, and the librarian at first admonished me that my appetites were likely to prove grander than my capabilities. But I was bored beyond measure without a book in my hand, and each week I surprised her by showing up for more.
This doggedness had revealed itself early on, an adaptive trait for a would-be toddler who had struggled to walk until well past the age of two. By the time I finally got to my feet, I stayed there—
a victory that must have assured me, on some profound and preverbal level, that determination was a mighty ally. Certainly it proved useful in the library’s summer reading contests, where,
one sweltering July, our literary progress was tracked by tiny flags ascending a papier-mâché mountain. Each Friday the young explorers would report to base camp to summarize the books we had finished; once the librarian had determined we were telling the truth, she would move our flags closer to the summit. I remember this textual expedition with pain and pleasure both: the giddy journey into higher altitudes, as I left the pack behind, the weekly anticipation of receiving our sentry’s seal of approval.
And finally, the misery of coming in second to a boy in my age group—I was probably nine—who had dared to outread me.
The realms of athletics and other hand-eye endeavors had found me thus far undistinguished. When she was five,my sister had drawn a horse of such promise that the picture won a local contest; I promptly got out the tracing paper and copied her masterpiece,
an act that suggested the visual pursuits be left to her.
What I possessed was a capacity to absorb and retain great quantities of words, a skill useful in spelling bees, Latin conjugations,
and, for one shining moment, onstage. My dramatic talents were confined mostly to a deep second alto, but I snared the lead in the sixth-grade school play simply because no other child could memorize the lines. Dressed in a red, white, and blue flowing gown that my mother had painstakingly sewn, I was cast as the small embodiment of the American flag. Like a one-girl chorus in a Greek drama,my role was to deliver great swatches of truth and beauty from a pedestal on high. “I am the American flag!” began my soliloquy, then marched on through the ages to the rockets’
Such fervor must have met with a forgiving crowd in those
Cold War and Camelot years. With the native-son exception of
Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964, Amarillo would vote overwhelmingly
Republican in every presidential election for the last half of the twentieth century—a conservatism that displayed its colors everywhere from Sunday-morning sermons (where might was always right) to young girls camouflaged as American flags.
My father had been a master sergeant in the Eighth Air Force during the Second World War, stationed for three years in a supply-command base in Blackpool, England, until months after the European theater was over. A tall, brown-haired man with pool-dark eyes and a slow, trustworthy grin, he had the type of young-Jimmy-Stewart physical stature that Hollywood had lionized in its soldier-heroes. I was born five years after his return, in
1951, and I grew up cloaked in the sweet mysteries of his having
belonged to such an exotic mission. This aura of intrigue was heightened by the stories he told and the ones he wouldn’t: the poker games he’d played and won throughout the war, the scar on his chest he refused to explain but that I imagined was a knife wound. Mostly, though, I had a notion of my father as a soldier in charge of a company of men, where his physical strength and bluster-rough camaraderie must have been on full display. For a child, these heroic images were part of a larger dimension that included physical warmth and the smell of coffee and Camel cigarettes;
taken together, they offered a portrait of a dad who was already larger than life. When I stood on that stage in my patriotic garb, delivering my lines to a full house, I knew the audience held a man who had come back from the war to take care of me. I must have believed myself at the very center of the home of the brave.
The war novels were housed in the basement of the library,
within the larger territory of Adult Fiction, where I wasn’t supposed to be. So this was where I headed, preferring the remote aisles of the last rows of the alphabet, where I was less likely to be apprehended. There was a vague warning, issued by mothers and librarians both, to be on the lookout for strange, nonreading men—the ones who smelled of whiskey, nodded off at the reading tables, or seemed too interested in children. I was far too young to consider that most of these dispossessed were veterans of their own wars, real or illusory, and were, like me, simply looking for shelter. They never bothered me and I hardly noticed them, for I
was curled up on the lineoleum before the rows of Leon Uris and
Herman Wouk—men whom I followed, without anyone’s permission,
into battlefields and drop zones of untold danger and intrigue.
Did other girls love war novels the way I did, in those years when the national mythos was still dizzy with the aura of Allied victory? I know only that my passion for the genre was probably the beginning of a tragic worldview—that Uris’s Battle Cry and
Mila 18 would send me on to the grittier likes of James Jones and
Norman Mailer; that the moral ambiguities of Wouk’s The Caine
Mutiny may have prepared me for Dostoyevsky in adolescence. If
The Yearling had been my first literary instruction in grief—in the unalloyed pain of love and separation—then the messy heroics of fallen soldiers only secured that terrible lesson: the idea that valor could face off with evil in a field of mud, and lose.
That’s grim fare for a child, no doubt sweetened by the pulpy promise of Uris and Wouk; like most Americans, as William
Dean Howells noted, I still preferred my tragedies with happy endings. And not for me the local wars of either Texas or the
Deep South. I was bored by literary accounts of the Alamo and the Civil War, though this distinction, in which I eschewed provincial battles for the European fronts of modern war, had more to do with my father than with any sense of regional shame or estrangement. Because he had returned unscathed from “his”
war—which had, astonishingly, managed to take place before I
existed—I needed to know everything about it. The legacies of
World War II were part of the story that mattered most: a home for my unfolding consciousness, with a good-and-evil plot that offered the last vestige of innocence in America.
Our fathers had come home to a nation infused with relief and ideological certainty, two commodities that would never again be in such abundance. Buoyed by the ticker-tape parades and necessary fictions that allowed them to go on, they could look beyond the devastation to a future that promised, at least on the surface,
protection from the past. The lines had been so thoroughly drawn by the rise of Nazi Germany and the aggression of Japan that our response was accompanied by a sort of mandatory amnesia—it was essential, if not easy, to overlook the legacies of a Great War two decades earlier, in what was billed as the War to End All Wars.Now we had Kilroy instead of doughboys; now we had the liberation of the camps to justify and amend the casualty lists.And we had Dresden,
too, instead of Ypres, but that was a subplot best neglected. If the campaigns in Europe had demonstrated America’s valor, the ones embellished by Hollywood and Madison Avenue confirmed it. The darker story, found in classics like The Best Years of Our
Lives and The Naked and the Dead, would outlive the boosterism of the postwar years, eventually becoming part of the elegiac truth about war and modern history. But for now, before the fences went up, we were still a land of suburban war games and toy bombers,
where the Nazis always got what was coming and where nobody good ever died—except maybe for a few minutes, only to be resurrected as the other side’s troop commander. Our dads were heroes—all of them were heroes, it seemed—and it was our tender burden to be the little soldiers who had made it all worthwhile.
Huddled there in my barracks on the basement floor of the
Mary E. Bivins Library, I envisioned myself to be of particularly steely character. Otherwise, how could I bear the horrors of Normandy,
or the lousy C rations that awaited me each day? I lived for such extended fantasies, believing that the canned peaches and tinned beef I read about were the food of giants—and that consuming them, in my imaginary way, would nourish me as well. This empathic identification guided me in the real world as often as it transported me into the next. I’d heard all about the fish-and-chips, wrapped in newspaper and sold for a dime, that my father had subsisted on in England; though he described them as dreadful, I ordered them every time I had the chance. Because the grunts in my war novels were, like him, card sharks and betting men, I made him play me at gin rummy or casino until I
dropped off to sleep at the kitchen table. It was hardly a parental sacrifice: In the card games and dominoes we both loved, he was already grooming a straight man for his pastimes. He had begun teaching me the bones of arithmetic when I was about four, trying to outfox me by making change for a quarter. I assumed this, too,
was part of what made a good soldier: Laugh and shake your head as part of the bluff, never look away from your opponent,
and never bet the farm.
No g i r l can live forever on blood-soaked heroism and fivecard draw, and I still had to train for my relatively peaceful future.
I was at the age when compassion and excess go hand in hand,
and I had cried so hard and long over Gone with the Wind (not its casualty lists, but Rhett’s exit) that my tears had alarmed my mother, then annoyed her. Staggering from Herman Wouk’s war stories to the tamer domestic pastures of his Marjorie Morningstar,
I responded to the exotic constraints of Marjorie’s Jewishness by giving up bacon for a month—and, considering my naive day trips into other people’s religions, I probably gave it up for Lent. The heroines who seized my heart belonged to the sophisticated urban settings of Wouk’s Youngblood Hawke and
Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn or Joy in the Morning; if precocious girls elsewhere, poised on the verge of puberty, were reading Austen or the Brontës, I didn’t know it and I doubt I
would have cared. I was enflamed by the purpler stories that captured the young women of modern America, hoping that, like the field manuals that had given me my father’s war, they could teach me how to grasp my life—how to grab hold and ride it to victory.
At a time when television had only a tentative foothold as cultural authority, such moral and practical guidance still belonged to the word, be it secular or scriptural. We learned how to get where we were going by the stories we heard, whether we found them in the classroom, the sanctuary, or the closet with a flashlight.
So we listened to tales in the schoolyard about the fates awaiting the craven and depraved, or we plotted our getaways by memorizing the escape routes of Calico Kate or Pioneer Polly.
More pious girls, no doubt, absorbed these life lessons from the
Good Book itself—“How should we then live?” Ezekiel was taught to ask—and yet the educational merits of Scripture eluded me throughout my childhood. When my parents gave me an inscribed
Bible one Christmas, my heart sank with disappointment,
then guilt at my ingratitude.
This religious drift was not for lack of access: As the product of a long line of Calvinist preachers and congregants, I had inherited their severity but not their devotion. My mother’s hangover from her Southern Baptist upbringing still made her frown upon the idea of cards on Sunday, though none of us, especially my dad, could take her disdain seriously. Instead of the terrifying strictures of a fire-and-brimstone world, my own spiritual domicile held a kind watercolor Jesus with pale blue eyes—a beneficent image I had met in the paintings that adorned the walls of our Sunday-school classroom, where I doodled away the hour and assumed I had a place in His tender flock. My parents had abandoned their strict religious backgrounds when they married,
eventually joining a moderate Presbyterian congregation.
Each Sunday we were lulled into a nondenominational oblivion by the church’s soporific organ music, and it was here, in the light-filled, stained-glass chapel of the Westminister Presbyterian
Church, that I discovered something far more commanding than the gist of any sermon. Singing from the hymnal and reading aloud from the liturgical responses, I fell in love with the meter of
Protestantism rather than its substance. I took to humming the doxology—“Praise / God / from / whom / all / blessings /
flow”—around the house; I startled my mother by reciting, at odd times and without warning, the Apostles’ Creed. I was about nine when these epiphanies struck, too young to be considered pious, so she learned to ignore me. “He ascended into heaven,” I
would solemnly intone, “and sitteth on the right hand of God the
Father Almighty, from whence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”
The quick and the dead! My decoding of this portentoussounding phrase suggested how I was to feel about Scripture.
That God should judge both groups meant, from what I could tell, that the quick were in at least as much hot water as the dead
(who, in the soft-hell universe of Presbyterianism, had nothing much to lose).For years I assumed that the quick were impetuous,
immoral, or godless; like the “debtors” seeking forgiveness in the
King James version of the Lord’s Prayer, surely they had done something wrong. When I eventually discovered that quick was an archaic term for the living, I was crestfallen. Not only did this new understanding imply that we were all guilty—God judged us every one—but it also meant my interpretation, however wrong,
had been more piercing and dramatic than the truth. Far from being chastened by my error, I felt it only supported my preference for sound over content. I daydreamed my way through a few more years of obligatory religious instruction, the high point of which was my introduction to Catholic services by a friend. The mass at her church was imparted in words incomprehensible in meaning but so rich in tone and cadence that I swooned from the sound. When the time came to select a language in school, I
signed up for Latin, then buried myself in its majestic declensions and conjugations for eight more years.
Later, I would learn most of what I knew about other religions from literature—from James Joyce and Flannery O’Connor, who revealed the torment and glory of living under the eaves of
Catholicism; from Roth and Malamud, who gave me Jewishness and Judaism with an intimacy I never could have encountered in midcentury small-town Texas. I went after writers who offered mysteries instead of doctrine, who roamed in the wilds of doubt and longing. This seemed to me where God would want to live—
out there in the hinterlands, where faith danced and then disappeared.
Out there in the war zones, for that matter, where God was surely necessary but sorely missed. All these desires and half assurances awaited me in a world opening more each day, and rarely, if ever, had I been led to them through the doors of the church itself.
So my sanctum sanctorum would remain inside those cloistered library halls, where attendance was optional and devotion absolute—at least for a time, until adolescence offered me darker venues with less predictable results. And oddly, wonderfully,
toward the end of that time of single-minded ease, two books I
wasn’t old enough to comprehend were the ones that had the greatest hold on me. The first was a musty volume called On the
Origin of Species, and I remember making the childlike association of God and monkeys as I added it to my stack. The librarian looked surprised, then somber, when I handed her the book at the checkout desk, and she waved in my mother from the car.
“Gail has chosen something that may be too mature for her,” she said softly; unfazed,my mother shrugged and let me take it home.
On one level, the librarian was right: I was eleven, and Darwin’s findings were way over my head, not likely to keep the attention of a girl who lived for war stories and smaller heartbreaks. But I
suspect the woman who declared Darwin off-limits to me, her avid charge, also had more censorious concerns. It was 1962 and we were in the dead center of the Bible Belt; to the east, in Tennessee,
Darwin was still banned in the public schools. Before the year was out, America would see the publication of James Baldwin’s
Another Country, Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s
Nest, and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Had that librarian any idea what was coming, she might have headed for a fallout shelter and taken me with her.
My other seminal text was a thick, overwrought novel I
found around the same time, on an afternoon when I was scanning the recent returns. If by now I was a kid who lived to read, I
was still beholden to the action of the page—to plot-driven stories more full-throttle than real life ever was. What I hadn’t yet grasped was that prose for its own sake, grown-up prose, could be so transporting as to exist beyond linear narrative in a corridor of its own making. One might call this the beginning of a modernist sensibility; I think, though, that I was simply ready to be a witness to beauty—that my brain was waking up to the world’s possibilities, and they came to me by way of fiction. The book I
held in my hands that day was a worn hardback copy of Thomas
Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel, and I didn’t get beyond the first page, because what I saw there so humbled and elated me that I
could read no further. “Each of us is all the sums he has not counted,”Wolfe had written in his second paragraph. “Subtract us into nakedness and night again, and you shall see begin in
Crete four thousand years ago the love that ended yesterday in
That I had just been given the confluence of time, space,
and metaphor—a rough abstract for human consciousness—was clearly way beyond my comprehension. What I knew was that someone, in some other time and place, had made sense of the largeness of life and the dark reaches I felt so privately within my soul, and that this stranger had found out where I was—he had said so, right there, with “yesterday in Texas.” This seemed to me a secret contract between writer and reader, a grail beyond any promises I had heard about in school or church. I went home and kept the revelation to myself, sensing that I would carry the elixir—great comfort and petition both—through all my days.
Part of what I was falling for, beyond all that swoony prose,
was the author’s own apologia for leaving. In the rich and gusty self-portrait that was Eugene Gant,Wolfe had given us one of the early Southern-boy migration stories—a prodigal son escaping the madness of Dixie, catapulted by ego and estrangement toward the distant North. This propulsion, this outward imperative,
is part of America’s founding story, in history and in myth,
and I must have read a dozen versions of it by the time I actually qualified for those shelves in Adult Fiction. A tattered trail of pro-
tagonists, most of them alienated and most of them male, would wend their way through my early literary consciousness: Binx
Bolling, the perpetual dreamer of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer;
the young men of Larry McMurtry’s early Texas novels, leaving
Cheyenne even if they had to crawl; Faulkner’s Quentin, who journeyed so thoroughly into my heart over the years that he became
my Quentin. That so many of these itinerant figures were men did not occur to me; I think I was searching for a flight farreaching or victorious, however torn asunder the heart that had launched it. The few female protagonists I came across had a tendency to stay put. Should they dare to venture beyond the borders of propriety or domesticity, they often suffered misery,
ostracism, or untoward death. I discovered the full spectrum of this punishment for roaming when I got to James’s Isabel Archer and other female innocents abroad; for now, as I veered my own boat into the chop of adolescence, I aligned myself with the guys who had hit the road.
Not that Kerouac or his wanderlust forebears had anything on my ancestors. My maternal great-grandfather was a Baptist preacher who had lost an arm fighting in the Battle of Murfreesboro,
though this sacrifice is said to have barely slowed him down—one hand, Grandpa Mitchell insisted, was all he needed to hold the Good Book before his congregation. Both sides of my family were Scots-Irish, with English on my father’s side and
Cherokee on my mother’s, and we assumed from our mongrel lineage a sort of moxie, as though we had gotten as far west as we did by our refusal to stop moving. Like a lot of settlers who had migrated west in the mid-nineteenth century, Grandpa Mitchell had pulled up stakes in Tennessee and “gone to Texas”—an explanation,
common in the Deep South at the time, that revealed not destination but freewheeling spirit. gone to texas was the sign you scrawled and planted outside your house when, like
Huck Finn, you were lighting out for the territory, even if you didn’t know where you were headed. The resounding theme was one of agency—of staring down your adversary, heading west,
trying to outlast whatever trouble awaited you. My mother’s father,
a farmer with the exquisitely Southern name of Jerome Forest
Groves, used to walk the rows of his crops all night long when an early freeze hit Breckenridge,Texas; he believed that his tread on the hard ground would raise the temperature a few degrees. I
don’t know that he ever saved so much as a head of lettuce. But the notion that he thought he had, or could—well, that was the same endurance that put him on the road during the flu epidemic of 1918, when my mother remembered his walking ten miles into town to get medicine for his children. That was the kind of faith
I’d heard about in churches, generally reserved for moving mountains. That was what got you to town, or to Texas, or just got you through the night.
My father’s father, James Penick Caldwell, known as Pink,
made it as far west as Quanah,Texas, on the southeastern edge of the Panhandle, before love took him home to Reilly Springs.
Quanah had grown up around the railroad, and Pink went there as a young man in 1890 to find work. “There was a man shot here in town, but not hurt bad,” he wrote to the girl he had left behind.
“This is a lively little place.” Still, Quanah’s high life was no match for Della McElroy, who would become my grandmother.A
friend tried to convince Pink to press on to Oregon to work the railroads, part of the great westward wave of young men who would build the Northwest. He told Della he was heading home to her instead. “If I was to roam this wide world over,” he wrote,
“I would not forget my black eyed Darling.”
Della wanted to marry Pink, but she was only seventeen, and her father,Dr. J. E. McElroy, thought she was too young. She was physically slight, and because she was stubborn and he knew better than to cross her outright, Dr. McElroy told his daughter she could have his blessing when she weighed a hundred pounds—
calculating, as a father and a physician, that she had already reached full size. Della saw the dare for what it was, and she got on her horse and rode it through the creek until her long skirts were drenched to her waist. Then she went home and climbed on the scales, and Dr. McElroy had to keep his word.
I came of age under the rubric of this story, and Della’s headstrong guile continues to fill me with gladness: Who was this hundred-pound mass of insubordination who stood up to her father,
married Pink, and gave birth to six sons and four daughters?
She died in 1936, when she was fifty-nine; my father had left college to go back to the farm and care for her in her last months. I
knew her only through the legends she left and through the farm at Reilly Springs, a rambling old white house with no indoor plumbing, each of its rooms bearing whispers of the past. There was the front bedroom where as a boy my father had found a copperhead coiled beneath his pillow, instilling his lifelong fear of snakes. There was the long farm table, occupied for hours each day, where Della had fed her hungry brood in shifts; the ones who showed up late generally got the least to eat. And there was the outhouse—humble, enduring edifice—where a bullying cousin once tried to spy on me and my sister, until my dad got wise to the boy and sent him on a mysterious snipe hunt. Mr.
Pink, too, had died before my childhood, just after my father had come home from overseas. But I can still and forever see Della riding through that stream, defying and outwitting her father. It was a splendid lesson for a girl in rough-hewn Texas to possess—
my very own Pride and Prejudice—and a story my father, in the years that followed, may have regretted passing on with such unabashed pride.
Innocence is a state perceived only after it is gone; and mine now seems a mirror image of the nation itself—or at least of the dominant culture, playing its indolent game of lawn tennis across a darkening sky. In those last years of latency, my pleasures remained pensive or interior: fishing with my dad, climbing trees with my sister to our fort (in actuality, a neighbor’s forbidden flattopped garage roof), where we read and ate pimiento-cheese or butter-and-sugar sandwiches and presumed to defend our secret bivouac. In teaching me casino, a card game based on memory and sums,my father had cultivated what would be a lifelong love of numbers; for years, I feigned interest in his venerated stock pages, both to please him and to prove that I understood fractions.
Having mastered these rudiments of math, I dove headlong into the elegance of algebra—a place of labyrinthine and serene precision in an increasingly uncertain world. I remember feeling an easy relief when I got to binomial theorems and x-factors: Algebra’s arched perfection was a buttress of clarity for a girl whose showiest asset was her mind. I was short, taciturn, and thoughtful;
I ran for class treasurer instead of the deeply coveted post of cheerleader. And if math wasn’t exactly cool, knowing how to pass it was. My first education in the casual cruelty of girls came when a reigning cheerleader invited me to her house to spend the night, only to ask me, without flinching, to finish her algebra homework before I left.
Throughout childhood’s march, this was the position I would hold—the kid who read too much, talked too little, cried inconsolably over novels even as I maintained a steady grip on my own uneventful life. And then, to my parents’ awe and terror, the changes of puberty threw me into adolescence like a bull rider out of a gate. The year I turned fourteen, I grew four inches, got breasts and contact lenses almost in the same week. I started rolling my eyes at the idiocies of Latin Club and Student Council.
Outfitted with a supply of Marlboros—they were twenty-five cents a pack—I began hanging out at the local drive-in burger joint, slouched in the shotgun seat of a friend’s Mustang and looking for action, listening to teenage wipeouts on the radio.
The old 45-rpms my sister and I had worn nearly through, from
“Get a Job” to “The Twist,” had been replaced by the Beatles,
who had stormed The Ed Sullivan Show a year earlier; now it was the sleepy, syrupy sounds of the Four Seasons and the Association we heard, about to be rendered impotent by the marvelously dirty lyrics of “Gloria,” “Louie Louie,” and the Rolling Stones.
What was happening to me, of course, was taking place all over America, but that in itself was a marvel: Radio and TV were creating a mass culture, and my rebellion dovetailed with one of the great cultural upheavals in modern history. Television’s response to the Kennedy assassination had proved how a country could be soldered together by the collaborative enterprise of myth and machine: that technology could transform history simply by recording it. The airwaves that delivered rock ’n’ roll piped in its language of sedition to every urban alley and backwoods lane from sea to shining sea, and the listeners waiting there responded with the frenzy of a mob outside the Bastille. If
Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” had told us how to make love in the green grass behind the stadium, then the Stones’ bumpand-
grind bass gave us the final permission for those hormonal outrages, and Janis Joplin told us how to scream. For decades,
English teachers had been trying to impart the hidden glories of theme and symbol to their unwitting students. Now we were curled up in bed at night with transistor radios to our ears, listening to one of the great antiheroes of popular culture, Wolfman
Jack, instruct us in the subversive narrative of rock ’n’ roll. Now we were meeting metaphor head-on in the undeniable poetry of
John Lennon and Bob Dylan; Paul Revere’s hokey descendant,
poised to foretell another revolution, had taken acid before his midnight ride. And now, when Country Joe McDonald told us we were all fixin’ to die, he made it sound like an anthem instead of a eulogy.
Who could resist such shock waves of grit and grace? I fell headlong into the pop-culture explosion around me, bored senseless with the homogeneity of life before rock ’n’ roll. I
pierced my ears, illicitly and crookedly, with sewing needles and bottle corks, using ice cubes as my only anesthetic. I wore chalkwhite lipstick and nail polish in acolyte imitation of London’s
Yardley Girl, an early-wave supermodel who was kohl-eyed and anorexic. Amarillo, too, responded to the lion at its gates with radical measures. The Dean of Girls at my high school, a formidable woman known to all as Miss Willie, took to carrying around a ruler to measure our hemlines, and she wielded that weapon as though it were a holy scepter. Once apprehended, we had to drop to our knees on the linoleum floors of the highschool corridors, genuflecting before Miss Willie’s mighty gauge.
When I was sent home to change, I took the reprimand as a badge of honor; within a few years, I would be wearing far more confrontational garb. Like the rest of the would-be bad kids at Tascosa
High, I had to make do with the minor rebellions of smoking in the parking lot and skipping journalism class; the only real trouble we could find involved unlocked liquor cabinets and illegal keg parties.
Except for sex, which in the mid-1960s presented a dangerous territory that many had wandered into but few were willing to acknowledge.
As a child, probably in the late 1950s, I had discovered that my mother stashed the best books under her bed, away from her daughters’ eyes; this dust-bunny archive was where I
found The Carpetbaggers and In Cold Blood over the next few years. But first there was Peyton Place, which I devoured. I was shocked by the idea of Constance MacKenzie’s nipples being hard as diamonds, even if I didn’t quite understand why they were. Most of my education in sexual desire had come from the elliptical instruction of popular fiction, where women got carried upstairs as a way to end the chapter. So mine were only vague prepubescent fantasies, fostered by novels instead of boys, and then almost accidentally. And that was before I got ahold of Mary
McCarthy’s The Group, which shattered whatever fictions America had left about good girls and chastity when it appeared in
1963. McCarthy had dared to have her women experience sexual bliss and dared to call it what it was; in the American vernacular,
the word climax would never be the same.
I must have made off with my mother’s copy of The Group
somewhere in the mid-1960s, a few years after it appeared; certainly the fragile paperback I still own, with its background shot of the movie cast, testifies to that. But McCarthy’s randy sophistication was more than I could yet tolerate; besides, her characters were Vassar girls, and that was in another country. And
McCarthy’s novel had, after all, belonged first to my mother.My own self-conscious march into sexually explicit fiction came at around the same time, accompanying another foray into adulthood.
I had just gotten my driver’s license, which meant I could plant my flag all over the Panhandle, or at least Amarillo, and I remember being surprised and disappointed by what that freedom implied: So what if you could go anywhere at all, if there wasn’t anywhere to go? For a fifteen-year-old, such unrestricted vision meant that I could take off in my mother’s car for, at most, a couple of hours. But at the time it seemed like a mockery, as though my mobility had opened up the horizon, only to underscore the emptiness of its plains.
Two interior journeys softened this letdown, if only mildly.
The first was a novel called The Arrangement, by Elia Kazan, a steamy story of a love triangle that I bought one summer at the corner drugstore. The other expedition began when I read a short story in The Saturday Evening Post, slightly racy and deep,
about the sexual awakening and ultimate downfall of a young woman named Lucy Nelson. It was excerpted from a novel to be published the next year, in 1967, and it had been written by a man named Philip Roth. I had never heard of him, though from what
I could tell, a lot of people had. What I knew was that he followed
Lucy’s chaotic despair toward its natural end; more impressive,
he had given his novel the wistful, ironic title of When She Was
Good. Partly because I was determined not to be, I asked for the book for Christmas. And whether they knew or intuited it, my parents seemed to realize that I had turned a corner with this par-
ticular book, and that my path might be veering in a dangerous direction. That, say, the author of Goodbye, Columbus might be excavating caverns far more threatening than those of either war or evolution, at least to a teenage girl on the prowl, armed with her Marlboros and her driver’s license and her long white nails.
And then I met Travis.