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Michelle Newby is contributing editor at Lone Star Literary Life, reviewer for Foreword Reviews, freelance writer, member of the National Book Critics Circle, and blogger at www.TexasBookLover.com. Her reviews appear or are forthcoming in Pleiades Magazine, Rain Taxi, World Literature Today, South85 Journal, The Review Review, Concho River Review, Monkeybicycle, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Atticus Review, and The Collagist.
David Heymann, an award-winning architect, writer, and professor at the University of Texas, is interested in what people want from nature. My Beautiful City Austin is his first work of fiction.
Houston: John M. Hardy Publishing
176 pages, $24.00
The seven linked stories in architect and University of Texas professor David Heymann's collection of short fiction are a testimonial to his passion for Austin and, hopefully, function as a warning. We flock to gorgeous, temperate Austin and that laid back hippie-techie-arty-nerdy-hipster-music-dude-everything-is-cool-or-soon-will-be vibe. But we refuse to respect what we love and destroy the qualities we claim to value. Suburban sprawl, disregard of ethical architecture and environmental considerations, and what Heymann calls “steroidal houses, huge and tall and…pretentious…starter mansions…” are endangering our beautiful city.
Heymann’s protagonist is also an architect named David. He is funny, earnest, and frequently befuddled by his clients. In “Intern Owners” he is flummoxed when his clients choose a neighborhood and house plan that are starkly different from their personalities and values. In “The Honey Trap” his older, retired clients want to build the personal equivalent of Six Flags as a lure for their grandchildren. “A Life in Ruins” finds David on a house tour suffering cognitive dissonance occasioned by a Shaker style master bedroom in a “vaguely Italianate stucco and stone pile.” “Patterns of Passive Aggression” contrasts Barton Springs—“the psychic heart of Austin”—and Lake Travis.
The author can turn a phrase: “Facts, politics, money: the [Barton] Springs are gradually being strangled, as one landscape takes over another, like starlings, or hydrilla, or antibiotic-resistant strep…” Regarding a certain familiar collection of restaurants: “There are a series of barbeque joints positioned like Stations of the Cross in a ring of towns around Austin.” A subdivision with a mixture of overgrown houses from widely divergent eras and styles looks like “someone had given a group of supersized drag queens the keys to the wardrobe of a historical society.”
And his descriptive skills are pastoral without being effusive. “The rolling reddish ground everywhere was covered in a ridiculousness of bluebonnets, to the edge of the horizon....A bit farther on we came upon a cowboy, fully duded out and saddled up, coming toward us through scrub cedar and cactus, riding herd on a flock of tiny Angora sheep, the legs of which disappeared into the purple blue.”
Heymann’s book is about the role architecture can and should play in our quality of life. He would rather we built innovative structures that incorporate the character of, and partner with, the land on which we choose to live. My Beautiful City Austin is a love song. It remains to be seen whether that song is a rallying seduction or a bittersweet elegy.
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