Reviewed by Dylan Fisher
In his official Spotify playlist, which includes the likes of Fugazi, Rites of Spring, Guided By Voices, and Hüsker Dü, the El Pasoan musician-turned-politician Beto O’Rourke proves—if nothing else—that he’s not Senator Ted Cruz. O’Rourke, a former member of the punk band Foss, played guitar with Willie Nelson earlier this year at the country star’s annual 4th of July Picnic. Later this month, Nelson will be headlining an O’Rourke rally in Austin.
One gets the feeling that, four years ago, in the face of that era’s general sense of stability and politics-as-usual, O’Rourke’s connection to punk may have been more of a political liability. At that time, in 2014, in what felt like a completely different world across the drawn-out Texas landscape, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (CCLaP) released a collection of seven stories of fiction by the Austin-based writer Fernando A. Flores to the tune of 200 hand-bound copies. With a mixtape-ready title, Flores’ debut, Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas, Vol. 1, made but a tiny ripple in the news (and literary) cycle. Even an Honorable Mention for the Alfredo Cisneros del Moral Foundation Award wasn’t enough to shift the tide. Once the original 200 copies had been sold, the collection fell out of print. Beyond small circles, the book then bounced from one pair of loving hands to the next, into relative obscurity.
What is left of its legacy? It’s complicated. Bullshit Artists’ quiet 2014 reception closely mirrored its contents, the weird, hallucinogenic stories tracing the short life-cycles of the fictional bands and artists of Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, Raymondville, McAllen, Brownsville—towns that most at the time had never heard of. To be familiar with “Roma in Starr County” or “the underwater city by Falcon Dam” or the Los Fresnos “skaters in the half-pipes and empty pools, like swans in the park relishing in their element” meant, then and now, that you either lived within or at their limits. Situated amid the chaos of punk, Bullshit Artists, at its heart, is an origin story for those who rarely get one.
Obscurity—both literal and physical—is the collection’s driving force, its language at once witty and poetically desperate. Encyclopedic like Roberto Bolaño’s Nazi Literature in the Americas, every artist comes with a cannily-conceived name—Pinbag, Bread8, ERIKKKLAPTON, the Swear Junction, Legalize Wino—devised, like that of any obscure indie band you’d find on Pitchfork, to provoke and be remembered. In this way, the book’s publication followed the same trajectory of its stories. Flores, too, became as ephemeral and obscure as any of the artists he fashioned.
It is from and because of this dual-obscurity that, upon its 2014 release, Bullshit Artists read as cynical satire. CCLaP promotional material leaned into this interpretation, calling Bullshit Artists a “welcome slap in the face to our ‘Yes We Can’ times.” Much like the collection’s various musical performances, which act as unscripted emissaries of characters’ grander socio-political and escapist aspirations, Flores’ debut, itself, also bumps against the edges of political and socio-economic critique. In “Bread8,” after “kidnapping” a large poster advertising the reelection of McAllen’s incumbent mayor, Copal Brandt, the band Bread8 plays a series of concerts during which the band dismantles and disfigures the ad, then teams up with the opposing mayoral candidate for a voter registration initiative. Their political engagement—inextricable from their artistic production—is less in direct support of the young popularly-progressive O’Rourke-like candidate than against the corporatist tendencies of Copal Brandt. As is often the case with punk, their politics is one of antagonism rather than of endorsement. At the restaurant where he briefly works, a drug-addled Robert Pin throws plates at the wall, calling the establishment’s owner “a big fat fuck taking advantage of his employees.”
Ultimately, the Pins lose their jobs, pawn their instruments, return to “the grandmother that pretty much raised them.” Copal Brandt, despite a history of exploiting migrant workers, wins reelection by a landslide. And so, in 2014, the collection’s title took the imperative, the commandment, the sentence, with Flores, who seems most comfortable writing from the margins, as jury and judge, plaintiff and defendant. Yes, there was hope, but there was Flores himself, his thrilling collection gradually being forgotten. Yes, there was hope, but there were also places (the small flood-plained towns of the Valley, for instance) where it was squandered.
That was just four years ago, though in many ways it feels like it has been decades. Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas is now receiving a second life. Its new edition, to be released by the Austin-based Host Publications, has dropped the “Vol. 1” marker, and added three stories which extend the borders of the previous seven—sending the book’s artists to New Orleans, Cold War Berlin, to “distant corners of the world,” bound contractually to always return, in due course, to the Valley. “In order to emerge,” Flores writes, “one must leave another place behind,” though of course geographically his artists never stay away for very long.
For Bullshit Artists, and for us, this is obviously a different world. We have by now heard of Brownsville and McAllen. We now know of the United States Customs and Border Protection detention centers in Brownsville and in McAllen, their evil neither accidental nor in Arendtian terms banal, but vicious and calculated. These expansive, haunting facilities—championed by Ted Cruz for much of the summer—while unmentioned in Flores’ collection, loom over even its most personal stories.
Which is why, magically, the collection now reveals itself as less cynical than earnest and almost optimistic. With details (regularly rendered in list-form) of the kind produced by digging too deep into the flesh of memory, the members of Pascal’s Fifth, reaching their final reincarnation in Port Isabel, are “allowed to grow old and to die with no pain, surrounded by sunshine and their families.” Sandy and Bobby Lou, on a whim, with “dreams of surviving on art and art alone, though neither felt they’d ever had a real artistic talent,” form a band, calling themselves: Black Alice/White Treemonisha. Naming their band an act of creation, a gesture toward hope.
As Bullshit Artists finds (re)publication, plus a 2019 release by FSG Originals of Flores’ first novel, Flores himself is receiving more recognition, rising from the ranks of his characters. If not an overtly political success, it’s certainly an artistic one with political implications. Knowing their fate, we root for Pascal’s Fifth to find respite from the violence of their incarnations, their music “deemed by the public as too out there and unlistenable,” to see the same success, to edge into Flores’ glow. We endorse Bread8’s mission, fully aware of the type of corporate corruption that will undo them. As quintessential underdogs, their brand of bullshit in this post-truth era, can be forgiven.
And as Beto O’Rourke gears up for a run against incumbent Ted Cruz, another possibility for revision to Bullshit Artists’ narrative has emerged—stretching beyond its fiction.
In the real, non-fictional ‘90s, O’Rourke was playing bass for a band with near-indecipherable lyrics—punctuated by the occasional expletive—and plenty of grunting, chanting and yelling. More recently, his band days behind him, O’Rourke was profiled in Rolling Stone as “Ted Cruz’s Punk-Rock Problem.” El Paso isn’t McAllen, but it is Texas, and O’Rourke’s alliance with punk-rock and the progressive aesthetic of sticking it to the man is a vehicle through which the dreams of Flores’ characters have a chance to be realized in a way they’re refused upon the page.
Inhabiting O’Rourke, Flores’ characters offer an alternative perspective on his campaign: Despite conservative initiatives to turn his musical background against him, if O’Rourke wins, it will be (at least in part) because of his years with Foss, O’Rourke’s progressive political aesthetic now knotted into that of his punk past.
True: Death to the Bullshit Artists of South Texas’ musical acts are not the type to be remembered in statues or in hit songs that play, years later, on the radio. And Foss, too, will (probably) never play a sold-out Madison Square Garden show. But it doesn’t matter. Despite the collection’s incredible feeling of completeness, there will always be more bullshit artists with big, incomplete dreams. O’Rourke’s electorate, an increasingly millennial and progressive demographic, has already aligned itself in a real and visceral way with the anti-corporate, grassroots aesthetics of his music.
To cast a vote for O’Rourke, then, come November, is to cast one explicitly for this narrative—to vote in favor of Flores’ bullshit artists. To place our bets on the very dreams we grew up expecting over time to come loose and to fall apart.
Dylan Fisher is an MFA candidate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He's currently writing a novel. Find him on Twitter at @dylfisher.