Texas on the Rocks by Daniel da Cruz
Del Rey, 1986
Price I paid: $1.45 + S&H
LONE STAR REPUBLIC TO THE RESCUE!
In 2008, when the Russians ruled most of the world and the United States was suffering from a catastrophic drought, most everybody went to bed a little hungry every night.
But out in the South Atlantic Ocean, a Texican named Ripley Forte was riding herd on the answer to America’s deadly water shortage, hauling toward Matagorda Bay the only natural resource that could make the Republic of Texas rich again.
And while he was at it, Forte would teach the Russians a thing or two about surprise attack.
To save the civilized world, all he had to do was live long enough.
At long last, another science fiction book about Texas! I love it I love it I love it
I’m cheating a little bit, though, because this book about Texas is the direct sequel to another book about Texas that I already read, namely The Ayes of Texas, which, if I remember correctly, was a fully enjoyable action book about dastardly commies and liberal weenies versus Real Texan Folks that wound up with one of the best climaxes of any book I’ve read. I’m not saying it was a good book. Quite the opposite, but it was also a very entertaining book.
I knew it had at least two sequels because I found one of them at my usual used-book store. That one turned out to be book three, and I thought about skipping ahead but decided against it. The world being what it is right now means I don’t get to the store quite as often as I used to (that is to say, at all), so I’m doing my best to buy from indie online retailers these days (I’m happy for recs in the comments!), and I’m grateful that I found one that had a copy of Texas on the Rocks.
I mean, I’m grateful for the opportunity to read the book. I’m less grateful about having read it.
Folks, book two of the Texas Republic Trilogy was nowhere near as good. In short, it doubled down on all the stuff I didn’t like from the first book (Ronald Reagan high-fiving John Wayne on horseback) and took out all the stuff I did (a single ludicrous and incredible action finale). But it also added some stuff all its own, like rampant misogyny and a complex thriller plot!
Like, I’m gonna have to give the plot to this book in really broad strokes and not necessarily in the same order the book did, just because there was so much of it. Plots within schemes within lies within misdirections all throughout. Despite my complaining, that element of the novel wasn’t all that bad. It did keep me on my toes. Part of my disappointment lies in shattered expectations, but it’s also worth mentioning that I don’t typically read books with plots like this one, so I’m not the best judge of the genre.
Our hero is a guy named Ripley Forte. He is the son of the late protagonist of The Ayes of Texas—let me stop right here and state that one of my disappointments with this latter book is that it doesn’t have an excellent pun for a title—Gwillam Forte. Ripley has a lot of his dad’s drive and work ethic, but not his business sense. Instead, he is a skilled engineer. A lot of his backstory, which is covered in great detail, tells about the several times he’s been screwed out of fortunes he built up by sleazy business people, usually ones he trusted.
One of those people is a woman named Jennifer Red Cloud, with whom he has a long history. She married Ripley’s half-brother and, though scheming, managed to nab most of Ripley’s inheritance from him after his father’s heroic death at the end of the first book. Ripley wants revenge.
But that’s just one part of a great many elements in this book, all of which kind of have the same narrative weight and so it’s hard to decide at what point I should tell you about them.
The broadest element of this plot is this: The United States is running out of water. The Ogallala Aquifer is running dry—a problem that we’re going to have to deal with in real life sooner rather than later—and there’s a general drought on top of that. At an early point in the book, terrorists who never show up again destroy the water pipelines heading into NYC and completely cripple the city. This is never mentioned again.
Meanwhile there are a lot of political dealings and wheelings throughout Washington D.C. A guy named David D. Castle has aims at the presidency, despite being an unexceptional Democratic senator with the charisma of a cinder block. I mentally cast him as being played by Michael Murphy from Tanner ’88, which is kind of unfair to Michael Murphy but that’s just how my brain works.
Castle has enlisted the help of Washington consultant and kingmaker William S. Grayle to attain that goal. As the plot progresses, we learn that Grayle is playing both sides, having also been hired by the current president Horatio Francis Turnbull, a Republican good old boy-type whom I mentally cast as being played by Jerry Clower.
Lest you think I mentally cast everybody in this book and that I’m going to tell you about it, I’ll state here that these were the only two characters I did that to. The others—and there were many—I just couldn’t come up with. Even our hero is kind of a blank in my mind. I just know that he’s supposed to be a big, big man. Jennifer Red Cloud is of mixed Apache and Norwegian heritage and utterly beautiful, but not in any way that, y’know, is described. We just know that men look at her wherever she goes and that she has a great body.
Fully half of the book is about the David Castle vs. President Turnbull storyline, which leads to another disappointment with this book. It barely even mentions Texas! The Lone Star State takes a backseat in this book for the largest chunk of it, which is mostly set somewhere in the Atlantic or in DC.
The only person with the foresight to see that a water crisis is coming is this Grayle guy, who advises Castle to take it on, make a name for himself in doing so, and ride that wave to the presidency. Meanwhile, he’s advising President Turnbull of ways to ride the failure of the project to his own victory. It’s difficult to see who Grayle is actually trying to make win here.
And that gets even more complicated when we meet the Russians in this story. Namely, we meet Lieutenant General Grigoriy Alexandrevich Piatakov, a KGB agent who, at the beginning of the book, is placed in charge of an agency called Room 101. Piatakov is unhappy with this appointment for a variety of reasons, most of which is that it’s a dead-end position. Anyway, at one point he’s talking to some other KGB guys and somebody puts down a series of photographs of our main characters, specifically Forte, Castle, Red Cloud, and a guy I haven’t mentioned yet called Mansour who is a wealthy Lebanese banker-type who bankrolls Forte. One of the KGB guys says that one of these people is actually a KGB deep agent, which adds an interesting layer to all this. Something about that scene felt cheap, though. Sure, now we know that there’s a KGB plant somewhere in the story, but we don’t know who, simply because the narration doesn’t tell us which of the pictures the guy put his finger on.
Castle addresses Congress and the nation about the coming water crisis. He drums up a lot of support. President Turnbull, in a surprise maneuver, throws all his clout behind it too. Castle thinks maybe Turnbull is trying to steal his thunder, but then Turnbull creates a new Department of Water Resources and names Castle the head of it. Castle’s star is on the rise.
While all this is going on, Ripley Forte is hauling icebergs around. He’s got a bunch of oil rigs and tankers up in the Arctic, and icebergs are a big problem for him, so he’s been figuring out ways to make sure they don’t hit his stuff. This is a nice coincidence, because Senator Castle declares that the solution to the water crisis is to haul icebergs from the poles to America and use their water. Of course Forte is a natural pick to contract this out to, and it very nearly happens, until Jennifer Red Cloud steps in again and snatches it out from under him by offering Castle something very important: Herself as First Lady when he becomes president.
God there’s just so much going on and I don’t think I’m halfway through the book yet.
Red Cloud’s company tries to drag an iceberg but it fails spectacularly. Somebody tries to blame Forte but it doesn’t go anywhere, and so Forte gets the contract to try again, and then much of the rest of the book is talking about the engineering marvels that he will use to get this iceberg to Texas, much of it very boring to a guy like me. He invents a new kind of ship and using sails and anchors and the currents and blah blah blah
Forte accompanies the iceberg, which he dubs the Alamo, from the South Atlantic to Texas. Jennifer Red Cloud comes along with him because, she says, she wants to watch him fail. She’s also looking for ways to sabotage him. Forte, on the other hand, tells Red Cloud that he’s always loved her, and that when he succeeds and he is incredibly rich, he will marry her. She scoffs at this, and then the book goes on to tell us that all women secretly want to be dominated and that strong women are frustrated by the lack of enough stronger men to dominate them so they try to become men, or some asinine crap like that, and that was my first real big Oh Bummer moment with this novel.
But there was another one on the way! See, it turns out that someone else is trying to sabotage this project, too! And who else would be but…an International Jewish Conspiracy?
Okay, so for context, it’s international because apparently there’s been a second diaspora after Israel was taken over by the Soviet Union. A group of these refugees hate the Soviets so much that they decided to destroy…an American project? Well, their logic is that if they destroy this iceberg, then the Americans won’t be able to sell wheat to the Soviets, and that therefore they will hurt the USSR that way.
My chief problem with this whole thing were that the conspirators were consistently just referred to as The Jews. It was quite gross.
But Piatakov in Moscow has dreams of his own, as well as a plant among these conspirators, so he knows all about it. He begins to leak the information to Forte without revealing his identity, and he does it in a silly way. Forte has access to a new and very powerful computer, and Piatakov wants it. So the Russian sends Forte messages saying something like “I know about a plot against your iceberg project. Send me the computer and I’ll help you put a stop to it. But here’s a hint…”
And then the hint means that Forte can solve the problem.
The plots are, in order
- Dropping anthrax on the iceberg
- Spilling oil all over the path of the iceberg and then setting it on fire
- Just nuking it
And so the iceberg sails into harbor in Texas and they day is saved, but the plots keep coming and they don’t stop coming.
Turnbull uses the celebration to thwart Castle’s presidential run by asking Castle to be his vice president.
Castle has been given secret information from Grayle, saying that Turnbull has inoperable cancer, and thus will die before his second term is up, making Castle the president.
But then it turns out that that secret information was actually a ruse anyway and that Castle was meant to find it.
(Or was it????)
ALSO it turns out that, remember how like 200 pages ago the KGB guys were like “one of these main characters is one of ours, mwahahahaha?” Well, it turns out that it’s been Castle the whole time. You know, the guy who started the book as an schlub who gets tricked into drinking a glass of Tabasco sauce.
But meanwhile, in Russia, Piatakov is scheming too. It turns out that Forte did send him the big computer, just like he expected him to do, but Forte also did something else, just as expected. Remember how the third plot to destroy the iceberg was a nuke? Well, Forte had some guys put the nuke in the computer. And Piatakov wanted that and assumed that Forte would do it based on psychology. So yeah, Piatakov unleashes all out-thermonuclear heck on Moscow right at the end of the book…except he doesn’t really, because the book ends before we get to see it happen.
So it might not happen at all?
This book relied entirely too much on saying, essentially, “But here’s what I didn’t tell you earlier! Hahaha!” and it grated on me. The end of the novel drops so many Truth Bombs and it’s hard to tell which ones are actually Truth Bombs and which ones are just Misdirection Torpedos, and I guess in a high-stakes thriller like this one that’s what you’re expecting, but I was just left cold by the whole thing. I feel like I can’t trust anything that anybody, including the narrator, has told me, and that’s not fun. I need at least something I can use as a reliable anchor for truth.
Like, at the end, it turns out that maybe Ripley doesn’t really love Jennifer Red Cloud like he said he did at the middle of the book? He does have sex with her at the end, and declares that that was enough in a “you screwed me once so I get to screw you now” way that sucked. What also sucked is that it did that trope where he picks her up bodily and takes her to the bedroom kicking and screaming, but then they do it and she’s like “yes this was completely what I wanted all along and it turns out that I do love you.” Everything about this part of the plot sucked.
So I can’t even use our main character as a compass to tell me what’s real and what’s not in this novel. Everything everybody says is at best lies or at worst “hahaha I didn’t tell you the WHOLE truth” and by God I am not happy about it.
In short, none of the plot twists ever felt earned. They just happened. I’m definitely not going to go back and re-read this book, believe me, but I bet if I did with the intent of looking for clues to what’s coming, I wouldn’t find a one. Never once a hint that Castle was a Soviet agent, or that Piatakov hated his bosses that much, or whatever else the story decided to throw at me.
All that said, I did still keep reading it, and I didn’t even have that bad a time. This book was nearly 300 pages long and I knocked it out over about three days. Despite all the unearned twists and bonkers revelations, I didn’t have much trouble following what was happening. There were a few moments where I had to go back and get my bearings, but despite those, this book was still quite readable. Daniel da Cruz could certainly write, it’s just a shame that he chose to write this.
Unlike The Ayes of Texas, this second book lacked a lot of the “hell yeah!” moments that I really appreciated. The first book had me rooting for people I would likely despise in real life. Texas on the Rocks didn’t really have me rooting for anyone. I couldn’t trust any of them, for one thing, but also, none of them were likable. Everybody is jockeying for money and power. Gwillam Forte, the hero of book one, might have been a billionaire jerkwad, but he did a few things that were faintly redeeming, including sacrificing himself at the end. His son doesn’t have even that much to go on, but maybe the third book will surprise me.
So am I going to read the third book? You bet I am! It’s got crudely-drawn astronauts on the cover! I can’t wait!
3 thoughts on “Texas on the Rocks”
I can wait.
Let me quote you, “I feel like I can’t trust anything that anybody, including the narrator, has told me, and that’s not fun. I need at least something I can use as a reliable anchor for truth.”
Now let me add that I have thrown a number of books across the room, retrieved them, and tossed them into the trash for that same reason. I’m sure this would have been one of them. I’m glad I have you to save me the trouble, and to yell at the author for me.
By the way, I got a copy of “No Woman Born” and liked it as well as you did.
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In retrospect I think there’s some artistic merit to the whole unreliable narrator thing, when it’s intentional and maybe the point of the story, but that’s certainly not what was happening here!
In a yet unfinished novel, I say, “The ultimate unreliable narrator is one who doesn’t know the truth himself,” but normally the UR is just a liar, and that is his function in the story. All that only works if there is a background of truth to see him against.
Or so it seems to me. I normally don’t like or use unreliable narrators. They irritate me.
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