Texas journalist and novelist Joe Holley tracks the ordeals of Wily T. Foxx, a state employee turned campaign staffer for Rose “Red” Ryder, whose run for the U.S. Senate bears a likeness to that of a certain legendary female Texas governor – ahem, Wendy Davis.
“The Purse Bearer: A Novel of Love, Lust, and Texas Politics,” which many will regard as a roman á clef — portrays Red as a no-nonsense, former state comptroller ready to take on the good ol’ boy network.
Holley will read from “The Purse Bearer” at The Twig Book Shop, 306 Pearl Parkway, Thursday at 5 p.m.
Before Wily ever met Red, he was scraping animal carcasses and spearing trash off Texas highways with a tow sack looped around his neck. When he befriends Aboy, the comptroller’s employee, an opportunity opens up for Wily to move to Austin and become Red’s factotum. One of his regular duties includes holding Red’s purse, earning him the nickname Purse, while she delivers campaign speeches. When she carries a shoulder bag, he sometimes hangs it reminiscently around his neck. However, Wily is above worrying about his nickname. Instead, “he liked learning things – from Red, from Aboy, from the political crowd in general.”
Holley builds up Wily as a dynamic man whose epiphanies come from the trials of campaigning for Red and strategizing against her opponent Jimmy Dale Sisco, a drugstore cowboy with millions of dollars to spare. Jimmy’s riches originated when he discovered the value of Nubian goats: It was illegal to import them, but he could sell their semen. Still, Jimmy considers himself above the law and illegally drains a natural spring to supply his ranch, making sure it stayed green even during a Central Texas drought.
By contrast, Wily is calm, observant, and perceptive, a man frustrated by gender bias: “What kept eating away at his mind was that the voters were just too backward, too damned ignorant, to choose a woman.” However, when it comes to love, he struggles with his own morality. His comfortable relationship with Jo Lynne James, a hairdresser he has known since high school, is in jeopardy as he falls for Trieu Au Nguyen, a court translator and student at the University of Texas at Austin.
Amid the prejudice held against Red by the good ol’ boy network, Wily understands the draw she has for women voters. At an Elgin barbecue, he noticed the women’s enthusiasm: “They were out there with (Red), young and old, black, white and brown, middle-class and not-so-middle class.” In Houston’s Fifth Ward, Red is introduced by Congresswoman Edwina Owens — another allusion to a legendary African-American Texas congresswoman — to a church congregation. The women unanimously decide the church should support Red. Leading them, a “Mrs. Brewer shot out her arm with her purse on it” and pushed her way into an all-male reverend’s meeting to make their voice heard.
The novel reveals the inner workings of political campaigning and delivers a good dose of 1980s Texana, from the sounds of conjunto accordionist Flaco Jiménez playing on a diner’s jukebox to the now gone-but-not-forgotten Piggly Wiggly supermarket. Holley, a native Texan, worked for Governor Ann Richards and, though this is his first novel, he has been recognized for his nonfiction by the Texas Institute of Letters.