The best Texas books on the sixties counterculture

Steven L. Davis Author Of The Most Dangerous Man in America: Timothy Leary, Richard Nixon, and the Hunt for the Fugitive King of LSD
By Steven L. Davis

The Books I Picked & Why

Strange Peaches

By Edwin Shrake

Strange Peaches

Why this book?

Bud Shrake’s novel of Dallas at the time of the Kennedy Assassination is an excellent example of what I call “eyewitness fiction.” As a prominent journalist at the rabidly anti-JFK Dallas Morning News, Shrake spent time mingling with the far-right millionaires who refashioned Dallas into a “City of Hate.” Yet the politically liberal, dope-smoking Shrake was also a denizen of Dallas’s underworld and was dating the star stripper at Jack Ruby’s nightclub. From these twin worlds, he fashioned this ferocious, comically subversive portrait of Dallas in the months leading up to the assassination.

Shrake’s writing has less in common with his Texas contemporaries than it does with American novelists Ken Kesey, Charles Portis, and Kurt Vonnegut. This novel blasts off so hard it can be a bit hard for some readers to hang on in the beginning. But if you stay with it, and latch on to Shrake’s Dexedrine-fueled prose, you’ll be in for a hell of a ride. Strange Peaches isn’t just a great Texas novel, it’s one of the best (though woefully underappreciated) American novels of the Sixties.


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All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers

By Larry McMurtry

All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers

Why this book?

Everybody knows about Larry McMurtry’s epic western, Lonesome Dove, but far fewer realize that McMurtry was at Stanford with Ken Kesey and Robert Stone in the early 1960s -- and he always had fascinating connections to the sixties counterculture.

All My Friends are Going to Be Strangers is one of McMurtry’s most endearing works: the portrait of a young, beat-influenced writer on an epic series of memorable road trips through Texas and the West. He’s exploring, observing, and questioning everything, including his own craft. The climactic scene, where McMurtry’s protagonist wades out into the Rio Grande to drown his manuscript, is one of the coolest endings in Texas lit.


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The Yokota Officers Club

By Sarah Bird

The Yokota Officers Club

Why this book?

I’m cheating a bit here because this book is set in the Japan and Okinawa, rather than Texas. But Sarah Bird is one of Texas’s most beloved writers, and this exquisite novel about the college-aged, Vietnam War-protesting daughter of an Air Force fighter pilot, is one of the finest novels written by anyone from Texas. Bird captures the mood of the Vietnam era with empathy and wonderful humor, but beyond that, The Yokota Officers Club is a deeply affecting story about families, about love, loss, and the hope of redemption. It’s a transcendent novel that feels both intimate and sweeping. Sarah Bird has written several fine books but this one is her masterpiece.


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If White Kids Die: Memories of a Civil Rights Movement Volunteer

By Dick J. Reavis

If White Kids Die: Memories of a Civil Rights Movement Volunteer

Why this book?

Dick J. Reavis was a white teenager from Texas when he joined the Civil Rights movement in 1965. If White Kids Die is his clear-eyed, unsentimental memoir of his experiences in Alabama for the Student Non-Violent Co-ordinating Committee. It’s a fascinating, grassroots view from a foot soldier of the movement, someone far removed for the glamorous leadership positions.

Following his stint with SNCC, Reavis later joined SDS and became a prominent anti-war protester in Austin. During his time in the Movement, Reavis endured beatings, jailings, denunciations, and poverty. All of that, as it turned out, was good preparation for his eventual career: a life in journalism. He has since become a legendary journalist in Texas, famed for his tough and daring reporting. He once told me: “I knew Spanish, knew how to live poor, knew how to lie to bosses."


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Journey to the West

By William Hauptman

Journey to the West

Why this book?

William Hauptman is a Tony Award-winning playwright and the author of one of my all-time favorite Texas novels, The Storm Season, about a tornado chaser in Wichita Falls during the Reagan era as the middle class is dissolving.

Journey to the West is a diamond-sharp autobiographical novel based on Hauptman’s experiences leaving his conservative hometown of Wichita Falls to go to college at the University of Texas in Austin. He arrives just as the sixties begin taking off, and soon his mind gets blown and his life upended. Hauptman writes so well of this quintessential experience that so many people have when they go to college and taste freedom for the first time in their lives. The novel/memoir follows our hero as he ends up in San Francisco during the Summer of Love, starving and strung out. Hauptman, is a first-class writer and this is one of his coolest books.


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