Oklahoma City bio is packed with surprises
Even Dallas might think so, after reading ‘Boom Town’
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?”
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)