Ok­la­homa City bio is packed with sur­prises

Even Dal­las might think so, af­ter read­ing ‘Boom Town’

The Dallas Morning News - - Front Page - By CHRIS TUCKER Spe­cial Con­trib­u­tor Dal­las writer Chris Tucker teaches his­tory and pol­i­tics in Rich­land Col­lege’s Emer­i­tus pro­gram.

Boom Town, Sam An­der­son’s bi­og­ra­phy of Ok­la­homa City, is a con­stantly sur­pris­ing book, Chris Tucker writes.

Sam An­der­son’s bi­og­ra­phy of Ok­la­homa City — at once rol­lick­ing, rev­er­ent, pen­e­trat­ing and poignant — opens with a quote from the late poet John Ash­bery: “Some things are si­mul­ta­ne­ously too bor­ing and too ex­cit­ing to write about.”

Let me con­fess that at first blush I thought Ok­la­homa City might be too bor­ing to write about, at least in a longish book. Maybe a nice fat Sun­day fea­ture story? Sure. But 400 pages? Dunno.

Was I ever wrong. An­der­son, a staff writer for The New York Times Mag­a­zine, is one of those lit­er­ary crafts­men who can make con­crete seem in­ter­est­ing, which he ac­tu­ally does while dis­cussing the state’s tax-starved, crum­bling in­fras­truc- ture and the de­struc­tion of the Stan­ley Draper Ex­press­way, an an­cient eye­sore that split down­town Ok­la­homa City for decades. (Sound fa­mil­iar, Dal­las?)

This con­stantly sur­pris­ing book starts sur­pris­ing in its pro­logue, when An­der­son dis­arm­ingly ad­mits that “Ok­la­homa City’s main job has al­ways been to be ig­nored” or brushed off with clichés about wagon trains and col­lege foot­ball. This shroud of anonymity is lifted ev­ery few years by a hor­rific tor­nado, a ter­ror­ist bomb­ing or an oil bust, af­ter which Ok­la­homa City re­verts to be­ing “a very easy city to look past.”

But don’t look past it. A page later, An­der­son pro­claims Ok­la­homa City “one of the great weirdo cities of the world” along with places like Venice and Ver­sailles: “It’s the kind of city that, in its ex­cesses, its im­bal­ances, its il­lu­sions, its over­cor­rec­tions, its lunges of pride and in­se­cu­rity ... says some­thing deeper about the na­ture of cities, about hu­man to­geth­er­ness ...” That’s a bold claim for sure, but An­der­son more than backs it up.

Since glu­ing him­self to Ok­la­homa City back in 2012, An­der­son seems to have mas­tered ev­ery as­pect of the city’s de­vel­op­ment. He guides us through its primeval geo­his­tory, its Amer­i­can-In­dian her­itage, the com­ing of white peo­ple with the 1889 Land Run and the glo­ri­ous ad­vent of the city’s first and only ma­jor sports team, the NBA’s Ok­la­homa Thun­der, which quickly be­came the true re­li­gion of mod­ern Ok­la­homa City.

The book’s struc­ture un­der­scores the team’s life-and-death im­por­tance, al­ter­nat­ing chap­ters of city his­tory with the Thun­der’s quest for an NBA ti­tle. (By the way, ev­ery new player on the team, be­fore step­ping on the court, must tour the mov­ing National Me­mo­rial built af­ter the ter­ror­ist Ti­mothy McVeigh blew up the fed­eral court­house in Ok­la­homa City, killing 168 peo­ple and wound­ing hun­dreds of oth­ers.)

An­der­son has plenty of dates and firsts and stats, but the real mag­nets for most read­ers will be his gallery of Ok­la­homa City char­ac­ters past and present, in­clud­ing the civic pow­er­house Stan­ley Draper; the pi­o­neer­ing black jour­nal­ist Roscoe Dun­jee; Thun­der su­per­star Rus­sell West­brook; the leg­endary weath­er­man Gary Eng­land; and Wayne Coyne, founder and lead singer of the alt-rock, post-punk band The Flaming Lips and the flam­boy­ant leader of what might be called the “Keep OKC at Least a Lit­tle Weird” move­ment.

An­der­son is the kind of writer you re­spect even when you don’t quite know what he’s get­ting at, as when he de­scribes the thick beard of early Thun­der star James Har­den as “a big curly pile of time.” An­der­son is fas­ci­nated by time, as well as the war­ring pow­ers of con­trol and chaos that have shaped Ok­la­homa City, and his fre­quent med­i­ta­tions on these forces are small philo­soph­i­cal gems.

One of the best comes when An­der­son walks more than 14 miles to re-cre­ate the Land Run. Plod­ding through road­side garbage past the hulks of aban­doned chicken shacks and pawn shops, he muses on Ok­la­homa City’s “ob­ses­sive quest” to be­come a sig­nif­i­cant city on the Plains: “It was an ex­is­ten­tial cru­sade, an at­tempt to as­sert the pri­macy of con­scious­ness, of hu­man life, in this end­less sea of noth­ing.”

If Boom Town has a flaw, it may be An­der­son’s oc­ca­sional strain­ing for high drama. Or perhaps only na­tives can fully share in the author’s ele­giac farewell to weath­er­man Eng­land when he re­tires af­ter the dev­as­tat­ing tor­nado that rav­aged nearby Moore.

But these are mi­nor set­backs in a true jour­nal­is­tic triumph. Upon read­ing Boom Town, many a long­time Dal­l­a­site may ask: “Hey, when do we get a book like this?”

File Photo

In the 1889 Land Run, set­tlers raced into Amer­i­can In­dian-owned ter­ri­tory to set­tle what is now Ok­la­homa City.

Boom Town The Fan­tas­ti­cal Saga of Ok­la­homa City, its Chaotic Found­ing, its Apoc­a­lyp­tic Weather, its Pur­loined Bas­ket­ball Team and the Dream of Be­com­ing a World-Class Me­trop­o­lis Sam An­der­son (Crown, $28)

SAM AN­DER­SON

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