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Sunday, January 28, 2018

Book Review: The Kings of Big Spring by Bryan Mealer

I heard this book described as if J.R. Ewing was real, and wrote a memoir. And of course, that's incredibly intriguing. Also, it turns out, more than a little misleading. I wish it had been that.

Mr. Mealer's family has long roots in Texas going back over 100 years, and throughout that century, they've gone boom and bust several times, and most of their fortunes and failures have been tied to the oil and gas industry. His family can be a lens through which to see the economic story of America, and certainly of Texas, writ small. And if he stuck to that, it would have been good. It would have been nice along the way to have more national context inserted here and there, but good.

But for me, it went off the rails at the end, where it also wants to be a memoir. Bryan didn't exist for the majority (9/10) of the story. But at the very end, where he does exist, but is a child, he reverts to calling his parents "Mom" and "Dad" instead of by their names, which was disconcerting. If the entire book had been a memoir instead of only the last 10%, that would make sense. Even if it had maybe been bookended or framed out as a memoir with a starting point from his point of view, and ideally a couple of midpoint stops where we get some perspective, that could have worked. It also would have made some sense if the end were at all memoir-like. If, for example, Bryan had been more than 10 years old and understood what was going on.

It wants to be a history of the country told through a single family, a family history, and a memoir, and since the author failed to decide on which one of these three books he was writing, and instead tried to be all of them, he failed at being any of them. Don't get me wrong--it's an interesting story and it does succeed at being a family history, and even in being an example story of the Great American Dream story. It fails at being a memoir, and when the narrative goes off the rails in that last section, it pulls the book down with it. I wish he'd been reined in more by his editor, and made to focus on one structure/goal for the book, as it could have been great. He has wonderful material he's working with here. But by being indecisive and trying to be everything, it ends up just a mess. It's a good read, if you don't mind that.

This book is published by Flatiron Books, a division of Macmillan, my employer, so I got it for free.

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