Sunday, March 04, 2012

`The Passionate Guess'

“Whatever its failings, Houston never lacks contrast, the insane juxtapositions.”

On a north-south thoroughfare I drove past a man in Mardi Gras regalia – red robe, plumed hat, leopard-skin pants – asleep or dead on the sidewalk outside a trendy art gallery. On the wall of a nearby Tex-Mex restaurant someone has painted the face of George Orwell. A funeral parlor is flanked by an ice house (to non-Houstonians, that’s a semi-outdoor tavern) and a carwash. If West Texas embodies Minimalism, Houston is strictly, unapologetically Baroque.

The late James Crumley wrote “Driving Around Houston” (The Muddy Fork & Other Things, 1991) in 1973, the heyday of second-generation New Journalism. He was born in Three Rivers, Texas, in Live Oaks County, and first visited Houston in 1957 at age eighteen. Later he wrote entertaining detective novels but this essay is glib and snide, unworthy of his gifts (see The Last Good Kiss). He complains a little too formulaically about all the talk of oil money and the omnipresence of air-conditioning. Mostly, he’s not seeing the things in front of his eyes but the pre-conceived notions he brings to them. But for the sentence quoted above, Crumley’s essay is more posturing than reportage. Playboy, he tells us in the preface, rejected it.

Houston is big and baffling enough to be readily misunderstood, even to invite incomprehension and revel in it, though I’ve never tried hard to understand it, merely enjoy it as best I can. Despite the heat and concrete, I like it here in a city without zoning laws. In an average week I meet more friendly people, people happy to give you the time of day, than in any other place I’ve ever lived. For every acre of concrete, a dozen live oaks flourish, even after the drought. I found a sort of verbal cognate for Houston’s blooming, buzzing confusion in, of all places, an Emerson journal entry for Sept. 15, 1834. The setting is strictly Northeast woodland, but from where I sit Saturday afternoon I see a cloud of midges swarming in the sun beneath a palmetto:

“The noise of the locust, the bee, and the pine; the light, the insect forms, butterflies, cankerworms hanging, balloon-spiders swinging, devils-needles cruising, chirping grasshoppers; the tints and forms of the leaves and trees,--not a flower but its form seems a type, not a capsule is an elegant seedbox,--then the myriad asters, polygalas, and golden-rods, and through the bush the far pines, and overhead the eternal sky.”

To his credit, Crumley writes in his final paragraph:

“As the city spreads beneath me, I know that no single man can tell you about any city. The best you can hope for is the passionate guess.”

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

I like this idea of Houston with its baroque juxtapositions. Every city I've lived in cultivates its own special strain of weirdness. There was the LA woman drinking what appeared to be river dirt wearing a shirt that said "EAT MORE KALE"; the guy in Phoenix who robbed a liquor store with a bow and arrow; the protesters in New York who were pouring blood all over themselves; the devout Christians in Charlotte who believed it was morally wrong to go to services on Sunday, have musical instruments in church, or celebrate Christmas; the billboard in Boston that warned people in no uncertain terms that they must call the authorities if they find beetles in their yard; the people in Pittsburgh who wore yellow and brown clothes as if the 70's never ended; the guy in Baltimore who took a tub of sour cream right out of my grocery bag. Stuff like that is why Joyce stayed in Dublin.