Homespun Monsters and Bandit Specters: Stefan Merrill Block on Texas Identity

Guest Article by: 
Stefan Merrill Block

One winter, six years ago, I drove a borrowed car down a rutted path that wound into a cedar valley of the Texas Hill Country. The land around me – with its dusty flats, its hidden meadows of bunch grass and prickly pear, its vultures wheeling in the sky— looked like some Hollywood set of archetypal Texas. This was Paisano Ranch, home to a storied and uniquely isolating fellowship program for writers. For six months at a time, a single Texas author is given the 250-acre property, along with its humble ranch house, which once belonged to the late folklorist J Frank Dobie. “The Dobie Paisano Fellowship Program,” its website announces, “provides solitude, time and a comfortable place for Texas writers or writers who have written significantly about Texas.”

I’d been granted this fellowship for the winter and spring, and on the plane ride down from New York, it had seemed as if I could feel my blood pressure sinking. After a long struggle to begin a new novel, my relief at the lucky windfall of time and space was enormous. And yet, when the program director had called to invite me, I did not ask the question that was perfectly obvious to me now, as I splashed through a low water crossing: twelve years after moving away from Texas, did I even qualify as a Texas writer anymore? Accustomed to cramped spaces and urban living, I felt like a stranger among all that land. As soon as I was settled in the house, I shuttered the blinds, and I tried not the think of the miles of dirt road between myself and the nearest neighbor. I had become an anxious New Yorker, who spent his first night on the ranch with a baseball bat under his bed, in case of intruders. Had I ever really been a Texan at all?

It’s true that I spent my childhood in Texas, but the state I knew felt like a different place altogether than the rugged patch of Hill Country in which I now found myself. I grew up in the Dallas suburb of Plano in the ‘90s as it was rapidly transforming. Within a few years, when I was a kid, an instant anonymous suburbia of strip malls and McMansions colonized the prairie. Plano was a jumble of national chain franchises and housing subdivisions, a town where just about everyone was from somewhere else. My own family was from far away, and sometimes I wondered if I could claim to be a Texan with any more legitimacy than, say, the child of a military family stationed in Okinawa can claim to be Japanese.

In my first days at Paisano Ranch, I took only a few tentative steps into the Hill Country wilderness, a forest that was home to rattlesnakes, coyotes, and one furtive mountain lion. In that quintessential Texan setting, I felt like a trespasser, but I was relieved to find a few familiar sights: that spring, on the high bluffs over Paisano Ranch, real estate developers were putting up a series of McMansions that looked very much like the houses I’d grown up among. “All these Austin folks, coming in with their tech money,” the fellowship’s program director complained on a visit one day, as he wagged a finger in the direction of this new construction. “No respect for the land.” I nodded sympathetically. But the truth was that I’d come from a neighborhood like those on the rise around Paisano, and I felt complicit in their construction. In the story of my home state, I was one of the defilers.

As the weeks passed in perfect isolation and my urban fears of intruders and fanged wildlife eased, I began to venture further into the forest. Just a few turns down the road from the ranch house, a tributary of Barton Creek trickles through the valley, and I often spent whole hours reading on its dusty banks. I loved it down there by the water; the particular amalgam of sights and smells worked on me like the combination to another, internal padlock, a hidden acreage of memory. In my childhood, I used to spend whole afternoons in a fort I’d made in the bluffs of a little creek that ran through my family’s suburban neighborhood. At the age of thirty, as I read by the weak burble of a Texan creek while buzz saws whirred and hammers banged at the nearby construction sites, I was pleased to feel right at home.

And yet, even if the land had started to feel familiar to me, I knew that to be a real Texan is to be from a Texan culture. In that, I understood, I would remain an outsider. My father is a Jewish psychologist from Cincinnati, my mother is a fourteenth-generation New Englander; without consulting Google, I wouldn’t know how to saddle a horse, or from which side one mounts a horse. But it was my supposed Texanness that had qualified me for this fellowship, and so I committed myself to learn something more about the state in which I’d grown. I was fortunate that the shelves of J. Frank Dobie’s old house were still filled with the histories, myths, and legends he collected, and I began to read through his tales of lost Mexican treasures, of cowpokes and vaqueros, of oil strikes and ghost towns, of homespun monsters and bandit specters. Alone with Dobie’s sun-wizened sensibility, all that reading about Texas certainly made me feel more Texan. On a Friday evening at Paisano Ranch late that spring, you could find me under the front porch, my boots crossed over a tree stump, a Shiner in my fist, a distressed cowboy hat on my head. But even as I performed Texanness for myself in the valley, I could still hear the stereo systems and pool parties echoing from the new neighborhoods. Though I often sneered at the sound pollution, I knew I would always belong more to that manufactured world of modern conveniences than I would belong to the hardscrabble history of the ranch below. And yet, after months spent reading the work of Dobie and other Texan historians, I was coming to think of all those McMansions differently.

In the century and a half since white settlers wrested the land from its native inhabitants, I had come to see, the short history of Texas was a story of booms and busts, of sudden, volatile economies. Though Texas might be old enough now to be home to a few families who could trace their roots back five or six generations, the state was also still young enough that the most common Texan experience was exactly like my own family’s experience: to come from far away, to tie your fortunes to that open land, to bind yourself to its old myth of flinty individualism while also bringing something new into its shifting, multifaceted, and unsettled identity. On my word processor, my reckoning with history, both the state’s and my own place in it, began to fill up pages. Six years later, my new novel, Oliver Loving (named after the legendary cattleman) is in many ways a record of that quest: the story of a conversation with the past, in search of an identity.

Over Paisano, the new houses continue to rise. The old ranch is surrounded on all sides now, and it takes some effort to find a vista undisturbed by a McMansion. I sympathize with the program’s organizers who feel that suburban sprawl has sullied something sacred, but it also occurs to me that Paisano as it stands now --a place of rugged isolation, bounded on all sides by new development-- is perhaps the perfect distilment of Texas of today: a place of Western myth, and sudden contemporary affluence all at once. A half-formed place that is still finding its voice, just as those of us lucky enough to spend a few months at the ranch are given the time and space to continue the lifelong work of finding our own.

Oliver Loving comes out January 16, 2018. Find it on our website.

Article Type Terms: