McKenzie, Robinson, and a January drive


Three items that came with the beginning of the year are resonating these last few days. The first involved burying my mother. She died in November, and on the third of January, we held a memorial brunch for family and friends and then a brief graveside service at the cemetery in Alexander, Texas, a little town eighty miles southwest of Fort Worth, where my father and his parents are buried. One of her requests was that a portion of her ashes be spread over the graves of her own parents, who are buried another hour’s drive further in the same direction, outside the town of Mullin, where she’d grown up, raised by an aunt, and where her father had operated a filling station. So after the service at the Alexander graveside, a bunch of us caravanned to the Mullin cemetery. It was a breezy day, nippier than was forecast, but the sky was mostly clear, blue and brilliant behind the charcoal-colored bark and dark green glittering leaves of the live oaks and the yellow winter grass.

The vistas I witnessed along this midday drive — big skies and flat earth, stark and plain, lonely and little-populated — came back to me a few days later when I watched the move, Hell or High Water, a modern-day western with Ben Foster and Chris Pine as the outlaws and Jeff Bridges as the old ranger on their trail. Director David McKenzie makes much of use of these landscapes, but he’s careful to include other sights, too. The outlaws and their pursurers do a lot passing through small towns, and not one of these passages goes by without some illustration of economic despair: boarded up businesses along the main road and the squares, “For Sale” and “Closing Down” signs, angry graffiti on cinder block walls. McKenzie is plying this theme: one hundred and fifty years ago the Anglos had won this territory in violent struggle from the Comanches, the “Lords of the Plains,” a phrase repeated numerous times. Now the Anglos have themselves been conquered, this time by globalization and the vagaries of the fossil fuels industry. McKenzie’s heroes resist with brazen acts of violence; they rob the cash trays of several regional bank branches, one after another, like the raiding parties of old. McKenzie lays his genre tale against a climate of desperation; everyone is depressed, hostile, anxious; all the townspeople are heavily armed and eager to discharge their weapons as if to refute the fact of their powerlessness. On our drive, we passed through many small towns, too, and saw the blight, the defeat, and unless I’m over-imagining, also felt the hostility.

This brings me to the third item of resonance. I’ve been working my way through Marilynne Robinson’s most recent collection of essays, The Givenness of Things. She writes a good deal about the current resurgence of tribalism here and abroad. Robinson was writing before the presidential campaign of 2016, but she saw clearly “the excitements that stir when certain lines are seen as important because they can be rather clearly drawn.” What she calls “excitements” here, elsewhere she names more bluntly fear — fear of losing out to others in the struggle for economic dominance. This fear is unreasoning, Robinson argues, both because it’s blind to the country’s real cultural strengths and history and because economic dominance itself is an empty goal. This isn’t anything new, of course, but simply, she writes, “humankind going about its mad business as if it simply cannot remember the harm it did itself yesterday.” The winner of the election was a nominee who enflamed the fear Robinson speaks of, who encouraged Americans in the “mad business” of tribal thinking, and whose trophy wife, golden penthouse, island enclave, and vulgarian manner are flashing sirens to the emptiness of placing economic dominance above all.

Robinson’s essays, in this and in her other collections, are often defenses of the lost Calvinism of her Presbyterian-Congregationalist tradition. Like the characters in Hell or High Water, she’s looking back a hundred and fifty years, too, when Americans were swayed by the sort of base Calvinism that would make a sentiment like the one in Lincoln’s second inaugural address not merely intelligible but the expression of “indubitable truth,” that the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether, and that all of us are culpable and held responsible for injustices far and near. The events of this year provide further evidence that, as Robinson puts it, the American Civil War, “has really not ended yet.” Both cemeteries where I stood that day were festooned with confederate battle flags, as were, more disturbingly, not a few of the residential porches, driveways, and front yards of the houses we passed along the way. These porches, driveways, and front yards were not golden. Mostly they were littered with the detritus of poverty or the abandonment of keeping up appearances. They may have been raised up in angry pride, but taken alongside what surrounded them, they flew like the flags of ships in distress.