You Bring the Boots
Local novelist Allen Wier will supply the spurs
by Jeanne McDonald
Allen Wier’s new novel, Tehano (SMU Press, $27.50) is a big book, perhaps even a daunting book if you consider only its size: 716 pages. But once you’re fully immersed in this wild and lyrical epic, you find yourself holding on for dear life, galloping through the Southwest at the end of the Civil War and the beginning of Reconstruction, loving the ride no matter how long it takes or how much it hurts.
It’s a raw and adolescent country that Wier portrays, but the story tells it the way it really was—full of the horrors and hardships facing the men and women who hacked perilous paths through the wild frontier. The cast of characters includes every imaginable demographic: Indians (when Indians were Indians and not Native Americans), Chinamen, emancipated slaves and freedmen, Civil War soldiers (one carries his amputated arm with him at all times), headstrong women, gamblers, prostitutes, cowboys, preachers, and murderers. There are love stories, too, the most touching and detailed among them the relationship between fugitive slaves Knobby Cotton and Elizabeth, who are doubly endangered by the color of their skin.
The title of the book comes from the term for Texans of Mexican descent, the state’s earliest settlers. Called Tehanos by the Comanche tribe, they were also known as Tejanos or Tehannos. In the opening pages of the epic, Ekasari, Red Dog, fictitious Comanche civil chief, is quoted as saying: “Who is the true Tehano? The one whose face is as pale as the moon? The one with the wooly hair and the face of night?... The brown farmer who talks Mexicano and paws the dry dirt of the uninhabited regions? If we knew who the Tehano was, we would kill him. But the Tehano takes different faces as the lizard takes different colors.”
Nothing is impossible in Tehano . Gideon Jones, the narrator of this often grisly saga, grants the wish of Portis “Eye” Goar, who, dying from a bullet wound, asks that Jones reattach his shot-off trigger finger so he will not be at a disadvantage in the gunfights he anticipates in Hades. The inventive Jones sews on one of Portis’s toes as a substitute. Jones, described as “itinerant drummer of lightning rods, self-taught undertaker, and fledgling journalist,” keeps a journal that becomes the detailed record of a still savage country emerging from the wreckage of the Civil War: the crushed expectations of slaves, the unquenchable fury of displaced Indians, and the desperate struggles of sturdy pioneers.
In the decade after the Civil War, all these dreams and desires came to a head when an inevitable confrontation developed between the Comanches and the Tehanos. This war, says Gideon Jones, “…was not for the endurance of a nation, but for the life of a people… All of them on that frontier, willingly or not, experienced the last violent thrusts of an inevitable clash that would decide who survived….”
Although some of the narrations are truncated for the sake of brevity (Wier could have given any of his characters their own novels, he paints them so thoroughly), we feel there in the moment with the compelling storytelling. One of Wier’s strongest suits is his ability to create a landscape so vivid that readers can almost smell the hot metallic stench of blood on the battlefield and the oily musk of the swamp and feel the unrelenting heat and rough grit of the sandy soil. Critics who attempt to compare his work to the Western literary masters Cormac McCarthy and Larry McMurtry are off the mark. It’s a futile exercise akin to comparing minimalists to pointillists: McCarthy’s work is overarching, nihilistic and spare, with near-surreal events and characters, and McMurtry’s style is stark and unsentimental. Wier’s work, on the other hand, is highly detailed and emotional, perhaps because he has personal ties to both Texas and Mexico.
During Wier’s childhood, his father got work in the wholesale flower business in Mexico City, which took him to jungles, flower plantations in Vera Cruz, and villages like Fortin de las Flores. (Wier’s novel, Departing As Air , portrays just such a character.) Wier and his mother, George Ann, would ride the train from San Antonio to Mexico City, travel back to San Antonio when their 90-day visas expired, then repeat this circular journey again and again so the family could be together. It was in the courtyard of the family’s Mexican apartment that Wier became enthralled with the sounds, smells, and sights of the Southwest: His memories, he says, are of “lush shrubs, bright flowers, and tall trees. Beyond the trees there was a high wall with sharp points of colored glass imbedded along the top to dissuade intruders.” Such details also enrich his previous books: novels A Place for Outlaws and Blanco, and a story collection, Things About to Disappear .
So when it comes to Mexico and Texas, Wier knows whereof he speaks. Just look at his feet. He’s the one wearing cowboy boots.