The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding . . . Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis
By Sam Anderson
Illustrated. 432 pp. Crown. $28.
Within the first few pages of “Boom Town,” Sam Anderson offers readers a pre-emptive, wryly compassionate renunciation of his subject that most writers would never have the nerve to make. He confesses that he has written a history of Oklahoma City. “This may strike you as unnecessary, or unfortunate,” he admits. “If so, I would understand.”
Let’s just say that Anderson had me at “unnecessary” and “unfortunate.” A critic at large for The New York Times Magazine, he goes on to describe Oklahoma City, which he first visited in 2012 to report on its N.B.A. franchise, as “unlikely, unreasonable, arbitrary.” Despite the rhetoric, however, it soon becomes apparent that in regard to “the great minor city of America” — given the sardonic context thus far, I think this constitutes high praise — the writer has discovered a subject that energizes him the way a birch-bark canoe roused John McPhee, the way a French meal stoked M.F.K. Fisher and the way the burning Bronx fired up Jonathan Mahler.
Anderson begins at the very beginning, with the future Oklahoma City sitting at the bottom of an ancient ocean for the better part of 500 million years. Eventually the Rocky Mountains soared, the earth’s crust tilted, the seawater rushed off to the south, and before long (geologically speaking), April 22, 1889, arrived.
On that Monday, Oklahoma City was born, at the stroke of noon, announced by bugle and cannon fire, when thousands of land-hungry settlers charged across the plains on their way to the imminent metropolis, where they were allowed by the federal government to grab formerly Native American territory for free. The city “was never more coherent than when it was nothing,” Anderson writes. “But it couldn’t stay nothing forever.” Many scoundrels and schemers had already been hiding for weeks in what were known as the “Unassigned Lands,” intent on gaining early access to the available property — hence their designation as “Sooners” and “Boomers,” tags that have been whitewashed into folksy monikers and team nicknames over the decades.
At one point, Anderson re-enacts his own solo version of the Land Run by driving out to Choctaw, which served as one of the run’s starting points, ditching his car and trudging over a dozen blistered miles to the heart of modern-day Oklahoma City. Whereas nearly 130 years ago, the settlers raced under perfect skies across a promising landscape of tall prairie grass, blooming dogwoods and “primordial trees uncut,” Anderson staggers down the shoulder of Highway 62, past extinct strip malls, abandoned churches, a yard sale of animal cages and a Rottweiler straining against its chain. After a driver in a pick-up screams incoherently at him, he retreats into a Walgreens to buy sunscreen.
“The route of the Land Run was filled with failure — ancient, recent, present and imminent,” Anderson writes. And there are times when Oklahoma City and its original promise appear to strike him as a perpetual example of the soul-altering fantasies of a boom town, of the abiding and destructive American hunger for instant success amid the usual financial desperation.
Boom remains the operative word (and motif) throughout the book, serendipitously arising in different forms over the course of the city’s history. To be fair, boom is almost always accompanied by its unfaithful spouse, “bust.”
Successions of oil and gas booms and busts have alternately enriched and depleted the city, starting in 1928 and continuing right up to the present with the advent of fracking, the extraction of natural gas through the destruction of underground rock formations, a process that has resulted in a drastic increase in earthquakes throughout the state, with their cacophony of seismic booms and rumbles.
There are the supersonic booms that echoed through Oklahoma City in 1964 during Operation Bongo II, when the chamber of commerce volunteered the metropolis for a six-month experiment in how well its stoic citizenry could tolerate daily blasts from overhead jets in the forlorn hope that the city might become a hub for supersonic air travel. (Answer: not well; when the head of the F.A.A. visited during the experiment, he received multiple death threats.)
There is the depraved, cataclysmic boom that reverberated across the city and nation from the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building by Timothy McVeigh, in which the force of the explosion produced a fiery 7,000-mile-per-hour wind, leading to the deaths of 168 citizens.
And in a metaphorical sense, there is the premature boom of Oklahoma City’s relatively new N.B.A. team, the Thunder, which traded the rising star James Harden away in 2012, and seemingly abdicated a rare chance for precocious supremacy. (The basketball material, perhaps the book’s original impetus, is actually the weakest of the narratives, already yellowing like old newsprint, as chronicles of past sports seasons usually do.)
Anderson may have a gimlet eye, but the nature of his civic scrutiny tends toward the affectionate. As a nominal East Coast elitist who works for a paper accused by red-state right-wingers of spawning “fake news,” he parachutes into flyover country (or maybe he’s tossed out of a tornado), hits the ground hard and appears to wake up and fall in love with the “not quite” middleness of Middle America. He comes to believe in Oklahoma City as a “radical experiment,” “an expression of American democracy or American foolishness.” “I felt a stake in its well-being,” he confides, a refreshing stance compared with the voyeuristic distance adopted by many journalists. And unlike navel-gazing yappers like Hunter S. Thompson, Anderson doesn’t splatter himself all over the story. He never drowns out anyone with his sly, entertaining voice. His sensibility, sophisticated though it may be, is generous enough to stand up and offer its seat to others.
In fact, Anderson’s gonzo journalism, if it can even be called that, is beguilingly timid. At the ragged close of a festive night, he reluctantly participates in a scheme where Wayne Coyne, an Oklahoma City native and lead singer of the Flaming Lips, ushers a band of pranksters through the city’s Plaza District, each dripping paint from a different color of the rainbow onto the unassuming and ordinary streets. “I am not, by nature, a lawbreaker, have never even received a traffic ticket,” Anderson writes, “and I was terrified the entire time, and that terror was obvious in my line. It looked like purple was trying to secede from the color spectrum. I kept swerving away … pretending, absurdly … that I had no affiliation with these reckless hippie monsters who were sullying the civic landscape of an otherwise fine city.”
Coyne is merely one of an array of vividly depicted Oklahoma City luminaries. Anderson produces a rich portrait of Stanley Draper, the city’s Robert Moses, who decided that “the earth had clearly made a mistake,” that the capital needed a mountain, and that he was going to build one, three or four hundred feet tall, and line it with azaleas. There’s Clara Luper, a charismatic African-American activist who was arrested 26 times for leading sit-ins and protests. Perhaps the most entertaining portrayal is of Gary England, the weatherman for Channel 9, who became a legend for his forecasts of tornadoes, and goes home after every weather disaster for a plate of nachos and a glass of wine. The city, too, becomes a singular character in its own right. As for the ultimate fate of this character, that appears to be contingent on the outcome of an ongoing contest between a red-state ideology of extreme individualism, preached and practiced by the city’s rich white conservatives, and the civic necessities of a more diverse metropolis.
In 1912, Franz Kafka started working on a novel that would be called “Amerika,” one he would never finish, though it was eventually published after his death. The book ends with its protagonist, a German immigrant to the United States, hopping onto a train bound for Oklahoma, where he and fellow dispossessed migrants have been promised jobs with the so-called Theater of Oklahoma. It’s Kafka’s version of a land rush. But for all of the surrealism in “Amerika,” whose runic metaphysics helped give rise to the adjective “Kafkaesque,” the manuscript doesn’t begin to match the genuinely American phantasmagoria of “Boom Town.” What’s most surreal about Oklahoma City, as brilliantly rendered in Anderson’s wild and gusty history, is that this city is for real.