By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
|Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov|
My friend, the mystery writer Tom Zigal, a.k.a. T Ray, Texas T, Z-Man, et al., wrangled me an invite to the Texas Book Festival, given for the fifth year in the Lone Star state’s Capitol. Having what you might call a peripatetic and less-than-feted career in the publishing world, any venue that pays my way and throws in a hosted bar is my kind of event.
I figure I’ll at least get a glimpse of Texas first lady Laura Bush, honorary chair of the event, and the seemingly illiterate Dubya. It wasn’t easy for an L.A. guy to get an invitation. It wasn’t as if you had to be from Big Foot country, as my dad used to say, to be eligible to be a featured writer here. But of course, like any homegrown showcase, the indigenous talent is highlighted. T Ray, who went to Stanford and lived in New Orleans a spell (currently he’s working on a political murder-mystery book called The White League set there; it’s Huey Long meets David Duke), was born in Texas City, down on the coast. Jan Burke, who won an Edgar (an award given by the Mystery Writers of America) this year for her mystery novel Bones, went from here but was born there. Me, I’m an L.A. native, though my dad was born in Seguin, a small town east of San Antonio most noted for a statue of a pecan in the town square, and the home of Texas Lutheran University.
Anyway, the plane was late getting into Austin, and thus the necessity of getting gussied up on the fly. Z-Man drove me to the shindig, this black-tie opening gala at the Marriot in town. Laura Bush was on tap to give her remarks. But before that, I managed to snag a healthy dose of Maker’s Mark at the hosted bar, and hobnobbed with Austin’s writers, readers and glitterati, including — just to name-drop — former Texas Governor Ann Richards and Stephen Harrigan, a local talent whose The Gates of the Alamo is getting play and who, as a screenwriter, gave us the TV movie Cleopatra. Hey, they can’t all be winners.
And as people talked about what projects they were writing, the current political machinations invariably came up.
Given the administration of Dubya, and the influx of dot-com moneys into Austin, the city that once boasted its yellow-dog Democratic core (“I’d vote fer a yeller dog before I’d vote fer a Republican,” as the saying goes) is in the midst of some changes. To be sure, it’s still the most liberal city in the state. Ralph Nader received 10 percent of the vote in Travis County, where Austin is located.
Filmmakers Terrence Malick and Richard Linkletter hang there. It inspired Mike Judge of King of the Hill, with Arlen being a substitute Austin; the cartoon show is filled with in-jokes. Austin City Limits is still a place to catch music from Lyle Lovett to Leonard Cohen.
At my assigned table, my host Harris “Schrub” Kempner’s first question to me was something along the lines of what were my politics. I didn’t need the fortification of good whiskey to answer him, but was pissed, since I figured I was going to miss a free meal when I gave him a response. I imagined that, in the ensuing shouting match, the Secret Service guys, walking around with their earpieces and tucked-away nines, would escort my unruly leftist ass away.
As it turned out, Schrub and Peaches, his wife, were Dems from down Galveston way. Schrub is the head of Kempner Capital Management Inc. But the family had originally made its scratch, as Texas T informed me later, in sugar. Sugarland, near Houston, was not only the site of the family’s sugar refinery, but the location of the infamous Sugarland prison, where bluesman Leadbelly did time. And where he wrote “The Midnight Special,” as that was the train he could see out his barred window.
As Schrub and a man at the next table, a Bush supporter and local GOP functionary, discussed the events in Florida, Peaches and me cut it up as we talked about race relations, mystery writing, and politics in Galveston while I sipped on more whiskey.
When Laura Bush made her way to the podium, she was given a standing ovation. Her brief comments generally walked the line ideologically, stressing that the event was about raising money for Texas public libraries. She did quip that things were still a bit indecisive for her family in terms of where they might be moving. And she got rousing applause from the partisans when she said no matter what happened in the future, she wouldn’t be going to the Senate.
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