David Heymann’s first book of fiction begins with a nostalgic description of Austin, Texas, as remembered by the unnamed narrator and central character, who happens to be an architect. The heart of the memory centers on a visit to the hill country just west of town, along the Colorado River above Redbud Isle, that he made during a summer in his high school years, in the early-mid 1970s presumably. The narrator and a group of friends, who have just driven in from Houston, explore this rugged terrain in their car, feeling that they’ve stumbled into a land that time forgot, little changed from the Pleistocene Epoch. Then the car dips down to cross a dry creek bed and they discover that there, among the scrub cedar and beneath the arching branches of live oaks, are modest little houses, shaded from the blazing sun by the encircling vegetation, responding more to the contours of the limestone-studded topography than the presence of the road. A joint is smoked and the group of teenagers pushes on until they find a place to pullover and park among some other cars and a path down to the slow moving, dammed up river. They clamber down the path surrounded by flitting birds, crossing land that seems to have no designation whatsoever, neither public park nor private property. At the river, they jump in the cool, clear water and swim with other swimmers and people floating languidly in inner tubes. No one challenges their presence or pays them much mind at all, except to offer informal greetings, “hey man, hey,” as Heymann records it. Later, on the banks of the river, the narrator is dumbstruck when he sees a beautiful young woman strolling unselfconsciously past, wearing nothing but flip flops and a beach towel rolled around her waist emblazoned with the likeness of Yosemite Sam.
And there you have it, the Austin of yore, or of myth anyway; the spaced out place where misfits gather to get high, have sex, and live close to nature; the unostentatious, come-as-you-are land of the Lotus-eaters; the final refuge from the “overstuffed burritoness of America,” in Heymann’s words. It’s not a vision the reader gets to enjoy for long.
Before the opening section ends (the book is marketed as a collection of short stories, but reads more like an episodic novel that follows the trajectory of one main character on a consistent thematic arc throughout) the narrator visits this landscape again, years later, and finds it utterly destroyed, not by the ravages of fire or some other cataclysm, but by the built environment. Where before there had been a primordial setting, dotted discreetly by small houses integrated within the landscape, he now discovers a jumble of oversized Italianate villas insinuating themselves preposterously within the Central Texas countryside. “Oh man!” writes Heymann. “There were kids in high school who would suddenly, from one day to the next, be assaulted by a kind of virulent, weeping, unrestrainable acne. Where before there had been a hot hairy emptiness, now as far west as you could see these steroidal houses, huge and tall and gross and unseemly and pretentious, were erupting out of the cedar forest like a horrid skin condition, an outburst of limestone whiteheads.”
From that point on you get the idea that the book’s title, My Beautiful City Austin, is, if not meant completely ironically, a perspective that takes more and more mental gymnastics to keep. The narrator, an architect who finds himself gainfully employed in designing houses for the new rich, struggles to hold onto this idea of what really makes Austin beautiful while perpetrating the same crimes against the landscape that he finds so despicable. Each story, or chapter, tells the tale of another commission and his attempts to convince his clients of new modes of living space, which his idealistic training in architecture school has prepared him to deliver. The clients, almost invariably, poo-poo his sensitive, environmentally conscious, modernist inspired notions in favor of constructing fantasies of the past—ersatz limestone ruins, faux 19th-century vernaculars. “They are conservationists,” he at one point decides, “though they are destroying a hope many architects secretly harbor, that architecture is a conduit to the real.”
Heymann writes with no shortage of humor. I found myself laughing out loud in several places. In person, as on the page, he comes off as a sort of Matthew McConaughey of Architecture & Letters, which isn’t to undercut his clear intelligence, but more to convey his laid-back swagger and the confidence with which he fires his darts. And his disappointment isn’t only leveled at his fictional character’s clients. He unloads on obstinate, dumb-headedness wherever it appears, even in other members of his profession: “Architects think people aren’t interested in buildings anymore, and don’t look at them, and consequently don’t, can’t, appreciate what architects really want to do, which is to make fetishized constructions to sit on the landscape like mechanical praying mantids, which will make people look at them some more.”
As an architectural journalist, it is refreshing to hear an architect tell the sort of stories about building projects, even fictional ones, that don’t typically make the press release. It’s no surprise, of course, that such frankness should be so rare. After all, who would hire an architect who goes around trashing his clients? Heymann, who is an architect himself, perhaps best known for the Crawford ranch house he designed for George W. Bush, and a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, is aware of this. He includes a disclaimer at the end of the book, “To my beloved clients: rest assured, you do not appear in these stories.” In spite of this assurance, Heymann has said his wife doesn’t believe he’ll ever get a commission again. If so, it wouldn’t be such a bad outcome. He’d have more time to write.