About a dozen years ago, I began to write a novel about a troubled wandering car thief, and for even more years, I had known where this thief would roam—through the part of the country where I was raised, the endless flatlands of the Texas panhandle, the region of the state known as the Staked Plains, or Llano Estacado.
The story would be true in spirit to the land as I knew it: desolately beautiful, eerie in its immensity and isolation, dry, lonesome, windblown, politically and socially conservative, and, at least for the book-loving teenager I was, devoid of much in the way of high or even pop culture, with the significant exception of music (Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Waylon Jennings, the Flatlanders, Terry Allen, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy).
Until cable came along, it was tough even to score a functioning television signal in my hometown, Plains, and the lone movie theater was—like the one in Larry McMurtry’s Thalia—shuttered. My book would be about how I remembered myself when I was growing up, all but disconnected from the urbanizing currents of postmodern American life.
But on the way to writing it, something strange happened. About the time I began, I’d started to write for the New York Times about art, a subject I plowed into as a passionate neophyte, trying desperately to fill the truck-sized holes gaping through even my basic knowledge.