To acquire wisdom, one must observe

‘Mr. Texas’ review: Mr. Lamb goes to Austin

It would be easy to label “Mr. Texas” as Lawrence Wright’s love letter to Texas, but this novelization of Texas politics is so much more than that. It’s an exposé, it’s a warning and it’s a satire. But yes, it is a love letter at heart. Wright finds the humanity and nuance in the characters others would quickly dismiss or even dislike, which is what makes this book great.

“Mr. Texas” is a bit like a modern-day “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The protagonist, Sonny Lamb, is a rancher who has never voted in his life. L.D., a lobbyist hoping for one more vote he can always guarantee on, spots Sonny and recruits him to run for Texas’ State House. Far from Jimmy Stewart’s wholesome hero, Sonny is a man with a complicated background that includes a traumatizing stint in Iraq and a troubled marriage. Going into the book, I thought it would be incredibly difficult to root for him. He runs as a Republican and beats a far more qualified woman to win his race, two factors I might ordinarily find disqualifying. However, Sonny is a good man at his core, and the book only works because he has so much heart and genuinely wants to do right by the people of Texas. Additionally, I was pleasantly surprised by how quickly he began rebelling against L.D. and fighting for what he believed in.

The book takes place over one memorable legislative session in Texas, as Sonny and his fellow lawmakers confront issues like abortion, gay marriage and immigration. While Sonny’s more QAnon-adjacent and Tea Party-aligned colleagues attempt to fan the flames of the culture wars, all Sonny wants to do is pass legislation that will address the drought that is making his way of life in West Texas near obsolescence. The legislative maneuvering is some of the most exciting and masterfully written content in this novel. I am thrilled to say Wright made me laugh and gasp out loud over a series of truly incredible chapters in which the book’s queen of religious zealots, Represenative Lurleen Klump, attempts to put forth a draconian, homophobic bill.

“Mr. Texas” also has a fascinating cast. Although the main focus of the book is Sonny, Wright occasionally used the third-person omniscient narrator to provide backstories for other key players. Any one of these characters could have easily had a starring role in their own novel, but I am very glad that this book was centered on Sonny. He is far from perfect, making poor decisions in his personal life that will frustrate any reader. However, his blend of naiveté and sincerity makes him the right guide for the reader and also allows him to become a connector between disparate parts of Texas politics.

At times, I found it odd that real-world people were interspersed with the book’s fictional characters. Governor Greg Abbott is mentioned and briefly appears (without any dialogue), and Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick is a looming force in the background, ever resented and dreaded. The book takes place in the post-Trump administration era, and there were moments early in my reading when I almost wished it were removed from any clear timeline and took place in some nebulous modern-day. However, looking back, I realize how wrong I was. The book’s ending is open, and it is a message to us. We do not know if American politics is going in the direction of reasonableness and cooperation that Sonny Lamb longs for, or in the direction of hostility and cruelty that his Republican colleagues are pushing. Wright wants to drive home the point that we are at a crossroads, and he cannot tell us which direction our world is heading. It’s terrifying, and it’s true.

It’s for this reason that “Mr. Texas” really tugged at something in my heart. I see in my own home state of Florida what Lawrence Wright sees in his beloved Texas. The worst people are being elevated to positions of power, where they happily “punch down” on favorite targets like women or immigrants. I think if I were from Texas, certain passages from this book might make me too emotional to bear it. Even though I’m not a Texan, I found so much of my home in this novel. I think a great deal of other readers will experience the same thing. I hope that many people read this book, regardless of their interest in politics. Yes, it is bitingly funny and extremely well-written, but it is also a necessary look at how our country has changed and where it might be headed.

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