Alamo House

I’m biased towards novels that evoke a concrete sense of place. Bram Stoker described Whitby so accurately that I felt giddy with recognition when I saw it. Fiction makes familiar the streets of San Francisco, the burroughs of New York, and the glitter of LA. However, portrayals of Smalltown, USA, tend more toward the metaphorical than the actual. Curious about how other writers set their works in a mid-sized city whose landmarks are not national icons, I turned to the darling of the Austin literary scene, Sarah Bird.

Reading Bird’s first novel, Alamo House, left me wondering how it reflected her experience of Austin. So, I dug into her biography and discovered some freakish parallels with my own life. Although she is a few years older than I am, we both are products of Catholic families with 8 kids. Our fathers were both Air Force pilots who received the Distinguished Flying Cross. We both lived on Kadena Air Force Base, Okinawa. We both studied flamenco, lived in Albuquerque, moved to Austin in 1974, and worked in Japan as adults.

There the similarities end. I became a technical writer and Sarah Bird went on to work as a freelance journalist and write romance novels before getting Alamo House published in 1986. Since then she’s written five more novels, most recently The Flamenco Academy. She is currently working on Weightless based on “knowing so many women—highly-educated, ambitious, bright—who had either just lost their jobs or had jobs with health insurance that was so bad, they couldn’t afford to get a Pap smear.” The protaganist is “a character who’d been brought low by divorce, (from a husband who bears an uncanny resemblance to W.), by the pop of the Internet bubble, and by losing her moral compass.” Ah. We share the same friends, too.

So I attacked Alamo House hungrily and came away about as satisfied as I do after scarfing down a burger at Sandy’s. I always feel noble supporting Austin’s homegrown enterprises but the bottom line is that this is fast food. Alamo House is a light comedy set in a women’s coop in West Campus where the wacky tenants suffer constant abuse from the frat house across the street.

Each of the woman is described by a quirk. For example, Esme “a menopausal woman” “well into her forties” has “ghastly yards of varicosed leg” and is wearing a torn Butthole Surfer’s sweatshirt which slides off “her wrinkled shoulder”. I know plenty of women well into their fifties who are neither menopausal or have wrinkled shoulders. As none of these characteristics has bearing on the character or the plot the description comes off as an exercise in Novel Writing 101.

For me the real character of interest in the book is Austin. So I skimmed over the fluff seeking answers to my original question: what changes does one make when fictionalizing a town that’s large enough to be anonymous but too small for the local hangouts to be nationally known.

According to Sarah Bird’s endnotes Alamo House is based on Seneca Falls Co-op (2309 Nueces) where she lived when going to graduate school in 1974 and 1975 and then again in 1983. She changes the name of Nueces to Pecan St. (to make a pun about the nuts who inhabit Alamo House). This resulted in my first bout of disorientation. Any Austinite know Pecan St. is the old name for Sixth St., our main venue for bars and restaurants. My sense of geography became more confused as the protagonist, Mary Jo Steadman, pedals from Travis Heights to the LBJ Library via West Campus where she first notices the Alamo House. That’s a pretty circuitous route on a hot August day. Especially as she walks back later when her bike is smashed by frat boys. Why not just have Mary Jo live in Clarksville?

I chalk this up to poetic license and one more reminder why Sarah Bird ended up writing novels and I ended up writing courses for software developers. The Daily Texan, Club Foot, the UT Swim Center, Ellie Rucker, and the Student Union all make cameo appearances. Bird drops just enough names to spark my curiousity without satisfying it. Only the Alamo House and the LBJ Library lend Austin’s ambience to the story. Austin isn’t as integral to the story as I hoped it would be.

I also came away confused about the time period. Clothes, cars, music, slang, and even a brief appearance by a couple of computer geeks don’t help pin down the year. The reference to Club Foot suggests early to mid-1980s. When did it close? When did Ellie Rucker stop writing for the Statesman? Is a little vagueness purposeful? Does it illustrate the sense the university experience exists in a vale outside time because it is a period of transition in one’s life? Or do writers think it’s better to smudge the details a bit to give the fiction a more universal appeal?

3 Responses to “Alamo House”

  1. M2 Responds:

    I’ve read Alamo House twice. The first time, I was a college student living in Austin. It was a magical book, filled with the quirky fun that mirrored my daily life and concerns. The second time was probably 15 years later. The plot was silly, the characters were cartoonish in their simplicity, and the plot didn’t grab me like it had. I regretted rereading it. I’d let the magic out of the memory.

    I’ve also read the Boyfriend School, and I enjoyed it also.

    I think Sarah Bird writes “stories,” not “literature.” I’m okay with that, although “storoes” might sound like faint praise. I like stories. She writes in archetypes, and that’s fine. It’s not Great, but it’s fun.

    I’m no expert, but I think that smudging the details is not the way. If you’ve got to change the details, the details should be as sharp. It’s hard to paint a small town “out to the edges.” I think Twain did it. Herriot certainly did it. But it’s hard work to build that knid of world clearly without drowning the characters and plot.

    As far as the time goes, she wrote the time she was in. Ellie Rucker was a goddess, with deep roots into the past, and there was no clue that she wouldn’t be there until Austinites travelled in aircars and jetpacks. Who knows what will disappear? Especially people who didn’t grow up in the town, and didn’t know that Rucker wasn’t installed with the bedrock and Colorado river.

    But … freakish similarities, oh my yes. Freaky freakish.

    * Interesting. Thanks for providing the review I started to write but didn’t. I ended up getting sidetracked by my private reason for reading it. I think the events of the book correspond to the time you were at UT but Sarah Bird lived there initially the same year I started college. I remember very well the cry of dismay that went up when Ellie Rucker stopped writing for the Statesman. How could Austin be Austin without Ellie? — mss

  2. M Sinclair Stevens Responds:

    Update: 2006-07-20. This just in. The Writers’s League of Texas has awarded Sarah Bird its second annual Award of Merit. For $100 you can hobnob with the literati at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum the evening of September 15, 2006. Events include a gourmet dinner, talk by Sarah Bird, and live music.

    Apparently The Yokota Officers Club is considered her best work, so I’m off to read that next. It received recognition from Amazon.com, the Associated Press, and the Texas Institute of Letters.

  3. Bonnie Responds:

    We have read dozens of works about New York, LA, San Francisco and others, all of them created a portrait of that city or neighborhood of that city at a particular time within a period of years. Our understanding becomes cumulative and we visit those places with those images from the books in our heads.

    I lived in Austin and attended UT at a different time, and I think there are no works that can paint the whole picture, unless it is “War and Peace”, but this book wasn’t meant to be that kind of literature.

    If it reminded you of “your” Austin in the 1980s, then bring along your baggage but don’t expect a rerun. Just keep us posted on more and other works about Austin, Texas. There are a lot of us who remember it fondly.

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