The Purse Bearer: A Novel of Love, Lust and Texas Politics by Joe Holley
$16.95, 323 pgs
First of all let me tell you a little something about the author of The Purse Bearer. Joe Holley is the politics editor and “Native Texan” columnist for the Houston Chronicle. He’s spent time at the Texas Observer and the Washington Post. He has been around politics, particularly Texas politics, forever. He also worked for Governor Ann Richards. So I tend to think he probably knows whereof he speaks and this should scare the hell out of everybody.
The Purse Bearer is the story of how a political innocent loses it in the muck of a Texas senatorial campaign in 1980. Wily T. Foxx (I swear that’s his name) is plucked out of his job scraping roadkill off the state’s highways to be a Boy Friday, a kind of personal assistant, in State Comptroller Rose Marie “Red” Ryder’s campaign to become the first woman elected to the United States Senate from Texas. The seasoned campaign operative who hand-picked Wily T. for the position and now functions as his mentor is Ewell Suskin – “Aboy” to his friends. Aboy is the son of a tent-revival evangelist and former owner/operator of a mobile foot massage parlor for OTR truck drivers.
Red is battling the heavily-favored Jimmy Dale Sisco for the privilege of representing the Lone Star State. Sisco is a wealthy banker and drugstore cowboy who will remind Texans of my generation of a certain other banker who battled a certain other woman for the office of governor, once upon a time. As we say here, “He’s all hat and no cattle.” Also, everyone knows that real cowboys wear Wranglers. Jimmy Dale Sisco wears Levis. The usual shenanigans ensue: dirty tricks (y’all are familiar with the term “honey trap,” yes?) vote buying, ballot stuffing, back room deals, dove hunting, debates and rampant foot-in-mouth disease. As it turns out, there’s a mole in Red’s campaign and loose lips not only sink ships – they get you shot at on ships.
At times The Purse Bearer reads like a Chamber of Commerce listing; all of the Texas trademarks are here: Neiman Marcus, Elgin Market barbecue, Luby’s Cafeteria, the King Ranch, Sul Ross State University, Heart O’ Texas Speedway, Dr. Pepper and Shiner Boch. At other times (and sometimes simultaneously) it would make a great geography lesson for students in seventh grade Texas history class: Possum Kingdom Lake on the plains, the black land prairie of Waxahachie, the Llano River of the Hill Country, Santa Elena Canyon in Big Bend National Park, shrimping in the Gulf of Mexico. There are plenty of Texans who will get a kick out of reading The Purse Bearer because they’ll recognize every single thing in it, remember the events, and will have visited, if not lived in, most of the locations.
I admit to being flummoxed; I don’t know what to do with this book. Is it farce? If it’s supposed to be farce then bravo – pitch perfect. The Purse Bearer is a (slightly) embellished mash-up of every famously ridiculous thing that has happened in Texas politics during the last fifty years. As such, you will recognize the set-up for almost every event and know what’s coming next from a mile away. For those of you who are going to jump on me with accusations that I lack a sense of the absurd you can check that at the door. This book was never meant to be great literature and should not be read or reviewed as such.
I think The Purse Bearer is supposed to be a fond skewering by an insider of the absurdity that is so often Texas politics. But I don’t think it was meant to come off this thick with clichés and tiresome with stereotypes. No one in this story pronounces the letter “g” at the end of a word (someone actually says “rootin’ tootin’”) and everybody has two first names (Jimmy Dale and Bobby Ray and Joe Frank and Jo Lynne). Wily T. has an irritating habit of greeting people with, “Howdy-do.” I kept thinking that the Texas portrayed in The Purse Bearer certainly did exist but no longer. Granted, the setting is 34 years ago. Now it feels like a caricature.
But then I began thinking about the last election cycle and some of the yahoos we spawn down here. Loopy Louie Gohmert over in East Texas thinks the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated Washington. Ted Cruz thinks there’s a United Nations conspiracy to abolish golf. Rick Perry packs a pistol on his morning jogs in Austin and thinks British Petroleum is God. Blake Farenthold down in Corpus is most famous for photos of him wearing ducky pajamas while posing with lingerie models. So I am torn. What if I just don’t want it to be true?