Texas tea, black gold, bubbling crude. Long the lifeblood of the Texas economy, oil booms have shaped the lives of countless Texans throughout the state’s history. The new book “The Kings of Big Spring” tells the story of one family as they navigate the successes, temptations and failures of Texas and the oil industry. The New York Times calls it “a Texas version of Hillbilly Elegy.”
Bryan Mealer is the author, and the family in the book is his. Mealer’s main purpose was to write about working class people without a political frame, by telling the story of his own family, which – like many others – came from the west, seeking the promise of the American dream.
“I don’t think Americans really know where they come from anymore,” Mealer says. “I think you have to know where you come from, to know where you are going. In every context we talk about working class people, and it’s all framed in the context of Trump, or the republicanism, or evangelism. I think a lot of the stories get lost, so I tried to write not from that lens, and I think you get to know these people more.”
The history of Mealer’s family in Big Spring, Texas goes back to the 1920s, when his ancestors moved in search of a slice of the oil boom that was emerging, which provided the region with an economy.
“Oil was everything,” he says. “And it still is. I think we are seeing reality shifts in front of our eyes. By 2050, they are saying that batteries are going to be cheaper than oil. It’s something that we can’t stop. I think my grandchildren will have a very different idea and image of what’s Texas.”
Religion played an important role in Mealer’s family story, as it did with many families during the Great Depression. It was his grandmother’s wish to have her relatives sing pentecostal chants on her deathbed that motivated the author to dig into his family past.
“It was a really powerful experience for me,” Mealer says. “ I kind of went back to try to find the source of that power, and it ended up going a lot further than I imagined, about 100 years. The church at that point was the safety net for people, not only kind of a physical safety net, but a spiritual and emotional one as well. And they were really drawn by that message of salvation, because if anybody needed saving, it was them.”
Big Spring is not only the city where Mealer’s story takes place, but it’s also a character itself. the author portrays in “The Kings of Big Spring” – the spirit of how that city has been for a long time.
“Big Spring in the 50s was a very cosmopolitan city,” he says. “There was this educated upper middle class, and they would have book clubs and bring in dignitaries and intellectuals to speak. Duke Ellington played in Big Spring, Elvis would played in Big Spring. All these presidents would come, and the Settles Hotel was there, which was one of the nicest hotels west of the Mississippi. It still retains some of that and we still have the stories from those periods.”
Writing about the darker sides of what an author’s own family goes through can be challenging, but Mealer says that he approached difficult episodes involving drug use, spiritual backsliding, and sexual abuse as a journalist. And that wasn’t a complication until he told his parents’ stories.
“Until it came to my parents I really had no connection to it because I really didn’t know a lot of these people, like my great grandfather,” he says. “I am just profiling them like I profiled anybody else I have written about, so it’s easy for me to have that distance from them. When I came to my parents’ story, there was a real and sudden shift in the way that I felt about writing it.”
Mealer believes that writing about his own family helped him find meaning by putting the reality of his ancestors in contrast with the history of the country.
“When I told people what I’m doing, they say: ‘oh, I always wanted to write about my family’,” Mealer says. “And I told them: ‘interview your family right now, go and interview all of them’. They love it when you ask questions about their lives. You think you have a boring family but then you put it up against history and so many things that happened to your family suddenly make sense and you sort of feel that you are part of the American history.”