In my last post I wrote about how the city of Houston, Texas has become a second home to me. Over the past year I’ve been trying to seek out as many literary works as possible that are set in places I have visited. Most of the books I read take place in faraway settings, but lately I’ve had an obsession with fiction set in locations I’m familiar with, be it as a tourist or a resident. It’s also important to me that the book treat the setting with the same intimacy it would a protagonist, and that it include as many specific references and concrete details as possible. This desire on my part means that I have to work a little harder tracking these books down. There are so many novels that take place in New York City, but I’ve never really been interested in that place or its culture. I see so much of it in pop culture that it doesn’t have much appeal to me. There are far fewer books that take place in Houston. In fact, for a big city (HTX is the fourth most populous city in the USA), Houston doesn’t get written about that much at all. There are far smaller cities- for instance San Francisco or New Orleans- that have a wealth of literature, for various reasons. I wondered why this might be. There’s so much going on in Houston in terms of life, activity, and industry. But maybe that’s not the point. NYC is bigger than Houston, but perhaps its size isn’t the reason for its popularity. NYC- much like San Francisco and New Orleans- has long been an artistic hub. It’s a place that has long cultivated art, to which writers, singers, painters, et cetera have flocked to for the opportunity to get recognized. If you were to ask someone what they associated with Houston, the first thing they’d say is probably “Oil”.
But there are people writing about Houston- you just have to look a little harder to find them. Today I want to discuss three books set in Hustle Town and its surrounding areas that I have read recently. Hopefully I can follow this post up in the future with some more Houstonian lit- so make sure to smash the comment section with your recommendations.
Author: Alicia Erian
Originally Published: 2005
First Sentence: “My mother’s boyfriend got a crush on me, so she sent me to live with Daddy.”
Premise: A thirteen-year old girl is sent to live with her strict Lebanese father by her jealous mother, in the hope that she will become modest and well-behaved.
Review: Wherever I looked during my research for Houstonian literature, this book would always be the first recommendation. Is this the greatest Houston novel of all time? I don’t think I can make that judgement yet, but I have a sneaky feeling that this is the case. My online research does seem to suggest as much, so we shall see. It’s the best one I’ve read so far. This book reminded me a lot of The Center of Everything by Laura Moriarty, which if you’ve read my review, you’ll know is in some ways my ideal type of book to read. It had everything I wanted and knocked it out of the park in every criterion for which I might rate a novel. Towelhead is a worthy competitor for that particular literary itch. On the whole I probably prefer The Center of Everything because of the way it spans many years, and I just love that fleeting style where you see the characters and their circumstances change so much over time. Towelhead, on the other hand, is more focused, following a single, pivotal year in the protagonist’s life. It’s also a lot more raw than The Center of Everything, and provides a really interesting treatise on adolescent female sexuality. What I liked about Erian’s novel was that it captured so well the way teenagers think, and it doesn’t seem like it’s written by an adult that’s forgotten their younger self and is out of touch with that mindset. I find it irritating how adults sometimes whitewash the teenage experience, assuming through a mixture of arrogance and denial that teenagers only do wholesome things and have wholesome thoughts. Curiosity is the cornerstone of adolescence, and to subtract it from a coming-of-age novel is about the most dishonest thing a writer can do.
Erian’s novel evokes truth. It’s about curiosity and confusion. In fact the inciting incident is rooted in the very themes that define this book; our protagonist, Jasira, is 13-years old and her body is going through a lot of changes that she doesn’t understand. She lives with her mother in Syracuse (New York, not Sicily), who is one of the most infuriatingly useless parents you’ll encounter in fiction. Jasira knows that she has big breasts, but she doesn’t understand the newfound attention this brings. Through no fault of her own, she is suddenly an object of sexualization, which no one warned her about. I find this very interesting, because she is punished simply for existing. Throughout the novel, she is “distracting” to men and she doesn’t know how to handle this. Her mother, far from giving her responsible advice about boys, sex, and our modern culture, is envious towards her. She doesn’t even take her shopping for bras. Pretty soon her boyfriend starts to feel attracted to Jasira- for which Jasira is blamed. Jasira is sent to live with her strict Lebanese father who works for NASA in Houston, who her mother hopes will teach her to become more modest.
Jasira doesn’t understand why she is being blamed. Because her mother’s boyfriend is nice to her, she doesn’t interpret his behavior as creepy. She doesn’t know that the situation is inappropriate. If anything, her mother’s jealousy gives Jasira a sense of self-worth. When she arrives in Houston, she actually misses the attention from her mother’s boyfriend, because it made her feel special. And pretty soon these patterns begin to repeat themselves. Her father, Rifat, smacks her when she walks into the kitchen in her pajamas on her first day in Houston. He makes sure that she is fully-dressed at all times and that all her clothes are conservative. Jasira gets a job babysitting for a family next door, and almost immediately the husband/father takes a sexual interest in her. And just like last time, Jasira enjoys this attention.
Aside from her father’s violent behavior, her mother’s petty jealousy, and her neighbor’s predatory manipulations, Jasira is ostracized at school because of her race. She’s half-Arabic and half-Caucasian, but of course this doesn’t matter because people only see her as Arabic. The book takes place in the early nineties during the Gulf War, and Jasira has to suffer racist abuse from her classmates (hence the book’s title). But all this contributes to Jasira’s isolation, which then drives her into the arms of her neighbor, who seemingly offers her the warmth her own parents do not. I think Jasira’s loneliness and boredom are important for understanding her state of mind throughout the novel.
I liked this novel because it covered with unflinching honesty the raw essence of puberty, exploring themes such as bullying, masturbation, sex, pornography, racism, menstruation, hormones, and other things that people are too often afraid to discuss because of the dogmatic meddling of conservatives. Well, Alicia Erian isn’t afraid, and that’s why I think people should read this book. What’s so great about it is that there’s no real agenda here- the characters are all portrayed with sensitivity and complexity. Erian is interested in the human condition, and often the art that resembles truth is the art that makes people most uncomfortable.
Places in this book I’ve been to: When Jasira arrives in H-Town, the first thing she notices are all the billboards for strip clubs that line the roads outside the airport. I’ve seen those same signs! What was neat about their inclusion in this book was the way Jasira’s adolescent mind reacts to these overtly sexual signs so brazenly vying for her attention on the side of the road. It makes you think about how young people form their opinions about sex based on the objectification in our media.
I’m also familiar with the area of Houston where much of the novel takes place. Rifat works for NASA, and I used to walk my puppy past their building on the outskirts of the city. So I could picture quite easily the scenes where he gets dropped off or picked up from work.
Author: Nic Pizzolato
Originally Published: 2010
First Sentence: “A doctor took pictures of my lungs.”
Premise: A hit man with terminal cancer and a mysterious teen runaway flee a New Orleans mob outfit and go into hiding on the island of Galveston.
Review: This book has been on my radar for a while, because I really liked the first season of True Detective (minus the ending, anyway) and Galveston is written by the same guy- Nic Pizzolato. And you can tell that this is very much a product of the same imagination that years later would bring us Matthew McConaughey pontificating about existentialist philosophy to the beetroot-faced indignation of Woody Harrelson while hot on the trail of serial killers, biker gangs, and meth addicts hiding beneath veils of Spanish Moss. That is to say, this novel is absolutely dripping with atmosphere. The descriptions of the landscape and the close attention to detail of faces and body language were my favorite aspects of this book. It’s a crime novel, but its focus is on the inward journey of its protagonist as opposed to an action-packed plot of twists and turns.
It’s been a while since I’ve read crime fiction, so the writing style was jarring but not unfamiliar to me. Instead I had that strange sensation of coming across something I used to have a very intimate relationship with. I’m using the word “style” here in a broad sense, because Pizzolato does have a distinctive voice that feels fresh and original. If I were to categorize it however, I’d say it makes me think of a hypothetical mashup of Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. The dialogue and the unsentimental, terse sentences remind me of the former, and the descriptions of (and emphasis afforded) the landscape bring to mind the latter. It definitely seemed like a much more masculine book than what I’ve been reading recently. That’s not to say the book lacks heart, or indeed sentiment, because there’s a lot of emotional depth here. I just meant that I could tell from the observations, the language, the references, and so on, that this was a male voice- which is great, because it suits the gruffness of this character. And the character of Roy Cady is definitely an overtly masculine one. I mean, he’s a testosterone-fueled henchman that collects John Wayne movies, has a grizzly beard, and loves whisky. But beyond this surface-level masculinity, he’s also typically-masculine in the psychological (far more interesting) sense: he has difficulty expressing and admitting his emotions, he feels a protective instinct toward Raquel that is simultaneously fatherly and sexual in nature, and he prefers to solve his problems as directly as possible. When I think about masculinity in general, and what interests me most about it, I think about communication. If I’m reading about masculine issues, I want to be reading about the communicative issues that come with it. The need to project a tough exterior, the difficulty in being vulnerable, the constant internal angst and paranoia, the trouble in articulating feelings in a way that is satisfying to all those involved. And so I applaud Pizzolato in this regard, because it would have been easy to just give us a generic grizzled tough guy. Instead we have a protagonist that is both flawed and sympathetic. I especially liked the juxtaposition between what Roy says and what he does, the way that so much of his character arc is visible only to himself, since he can’t really articulate it to those around him.
Overall I enjoyed this novel. It was a lot more subtle than I expected. I figured it would be like a modern day Dashiell Hammett or James M. Cain thriller. Sure, there are scenes in Galveston that are pure noir, but ultimately it gives off a much more existential vibe.
Places in this book I’ve been to: I’ve actually made the journey that the characters in this book take: New Orleans to Houston. So I could picture the landscape every step of the way, including the beginning chapters that take place in New Orleans. I’ve also been to Galveston for a day out on the beach, which the characters in this book do quite often.
Author: Nathan Nix
Originally Published: 2013
First Sentence: “We were at the party that night to save my best friend, Mel, who was on the verge of making a gigantic mistake.”
Premise: The comfortable life of an upper-middle class girl with her dream future all planned-out takes a nosedive when her dad commits fraud and her family becomes the black sheep of their wealthy neighborhood.
Review: At first I wasn’t sure if I liked this book. The first few chapters for the most part are setting up the protagonist’s life in the upper-middle class area of The Woodlands, an affluent planned community north of Houston. Nic has just graduated high school and she loves her life. She’s got her best friend Mel and her longtime boyfriend Cory, and the three of them have their future planned out together. They’re going to go to Austin and study at the prestigious University of Texas. Nic and Mel are going to go to the same sorority, and after they all graduate Nic and Cory will get married and raise a nuclear family. Nic’s dad works for a big company, and Nic’s mom spends her time shopping and climbing the social ladder, planning galas and fundraisers. They go to church, drive expensive cars, and own a fabulous cabin on Lake Conroe. So you can see why the first few chapters didn’t exactly have me glued to the page. I just couldn’t get invested in a world so shallow, in these bland WASP-y lives that revolve around conformity and materialism.
But then, Nic’s dad shits a hole straight through the bed when he knowingly commits fraud, his company goes bust, and all the family assets and savings go down with it because he didn’t diversify his stock. Clumsy sod. So now I’m hooked. From this point forward, I read the book ravenously. I understood why so much detail in the first few chapters was given to establishing Nic’s perfect life. Nic slowly begins to learn that her entire way of life is in the process of changing, that now she can’t take anything for granted. I would definitely say that Nic is a likable protagonist and I found her journey to be a really interesting one. I had no sympathy for the mother, because as soon as the dad is taken away by the cops her first concern is her reputation within the neighborhood. Literally, as the car is leaving the driveway, she’s telling her friend to reassure all the neighbors that nothing is wrong. And throughout the book, as Nic adjusts her lifestyle and her dad tries to atone for his actions, the mom is still charging expensive purchases to their credit cards and planning nauseatingly-suburban black tie events.
I would have been interested in a subplot that explored the parents’ dynamic more, because I think the mom’s refusal to give up a life she can no longer afford is interesting. I would have liked to see more fallout from that, like a divorce or something. Not because I like pain and suffering, you must understand, but because I would have been interested to see how it would have further affected Nic’s character arc. I find the idea of a single event causing irreparable damage to be very compelling, the way that sometimes a seemingly innocuous decision, moment of carelessness, a coincidental accident, or even just an act of nature can serve as a bifurcation in someone’s life. And that is pretty much what happens- but the parents are peripheral characters. The focus is on Nic, who has to attend the local community college and mix with people she would have never considered hanging out with before. I like this story because Nic becomes a more interesting person as the narrative progresses. At first she struggles with being separated from her friends and her boyfriend, but sure enough she gets to know herself on a much deeper level as the weeks and months go by. She falls in with an artsy group of misfits that have no money and no plan for the future. In many ways the novel is a fish-out-of-water narrative, and every little scene seemed to reflect that. I actually found it really engrossing. I think the novel ended in the right place, with a clear beginning, middle and end to Nic’s journey, and yet a part of me just wanted it to keep going forever. I wanted to follow Nic throughout her life because I liked seeing how she reacted to things.
The actions and observations of Nic and her friends ring true to adolescence. I loved this novel because it explored the themes of youth without making it seem like a teeny soap opera. It gave importance to the things teenagers give importance to, while at the same time remaining nuanced and true to real life. I’m glad there are no shocking twists or sensational, melodramatic scenes. I was worried that Nic and Cory’s relationship would come to a dramatic end with her driving up to Austin and walking in on him boning a sorority girl at a house party. But the book is better than that. Instead we see them drift apart in a very natural and believable way as their lives head in opposite directions, which I think is much more intriguing because the emphasis is on the conflicted emotions our protagonist feels. It would have been too easy if Nix decided to have Cory cheat on her, because then the decision is made for her. The paranoia that he might be cheating, for which there is no evidence whatsoever, is much more interesting, because that’s what people are like. We’re irrational and overdramatic like that when we care about something. Instead Nic has to make the decision by herself, for which there is no right or wrong answer. If Cory had cheated on her, then there would be a clear right answer, which is boring. As Nic spends more and more time with the groovy hipster dude that openly flirts with her, you can’t help but root for them even though you know it’s technically cheating. And this reflects the duality of the protagonist’s feelings.
I read this book the fastest out of the three here. It’s the most straightforward out of the three, and it lacks the edge that Towelhead has, but I just had such a great time following Nic’s journey. I also think that Nathan Nix is proof that men are capable of writing compelling and believable female characters. If the name on the front cover had just been N. Nix, I would have assumed this was written by a woman. I know my Y-chromosomes probably invalidate my opinion somewhat, but I really thought Nic’s voice felt authentic.
Places in this book I’ve been to: Out of the three books here, The Drifters easily had the most Houstonian references. The book takes place in The Woodlands, and okay, I haven’t been there, but my best mate ran a half marathon there a couple years back! Most interestingly, the book really brings to life Westheimer Road and the Montrose neighborhood of Houston, where Nic is sort of inducted into the local artsy community. She has breakfast at a place called Baby Barnaby’s, which I’ve also been to. Like Nic, I too sat on the deck.