Going through changes

Jim Sanderson (left) and the cover of his new book, Hill Country Property

Award-winning author and Lamar University professor Jim Sanderson has released his eighth novel, Hill Country Property, the prequel to his riveting murder mystery Nothing to Lose, which follows the Beaumont adventures of a failed lawyer turned PI, Roger Jackson, who finds himself entangled in a murder investigation when police discover his photos of the victim, who he had been tailing in an investigation of his own.

Hill Country Property, in the works for around 30 years, according to Dr. Jim Sanderson, details how Roger’s marriage with his wife, Victoria, and the marriage of his in-laws, Henry and Rebecca, both fall apart. The novel takes place in the Texas Hill Country — in Austin, San Antonio and surrounding areas — as well as Taos, New Mexico.

“It killed editors and shut down presses,” Sanderson jokes about the rejections and rewrites that the novel went through over the past three decades before being published. “I believe that I have over 10 drafts. I just about had given up on it. … Just because I am obsessive, I kept on with it. So after 30 years, Joe Taylor at Livingston Press is finally going to publish it.”

In Hill Country Property, Roger searches three states to find his estranged mother-in-law, Rebecca, only to be told that she has no intention of returning home to the bedside of her dying husband, Henry, who she deserted more than 30 years ago to pursue her education in New Mexico.

“Though Rebecca, having deserted her husband to enjoy herself in the ‘new age’ … of the ’60s, self-describes as the villain, ‘misfit’ probably suits her better,” said Cliff Hudder, a published author and professor of English at Lone Star College – Montgomery in Conroe. “Indeed, such a label places her right in line with most of the characters in Hill Country Property, and right up Sanderson’s alley.”

The novel examines the changing gender roles in American society and distinguishes between what Sanderson dubs “earned” and “unearned sex.”

“Prior to the 1960s, it’s earned sex — you have to earn it, and Roger says afterwards, it’s unearned sex — it’s all open,” Sanderson explains. “Roger, from the age of unearned sex, is spying on people having earned sex. He’s caught in all that chaotic movement, but yet he’s looking back at the earned sex, and that’s not any better.”

Sanderson uses imagery of a flowing creek through the Hill Country property as a symbol of a land that not only will not yield itself to its owner but also, in fact, almost aids in the family’s decadence.

“There’s a pool that makes … a nice swimming hole,” Sanderson said. “Henry and (Rebecca) consummate their love affair by going skinny-dipping, and that leads to their marriage. And then Roger and Victoria end up consummating their relationship by skinny-dipping in this pool. Both times it leads to sex and the consequences. … We all have Hill Country property — we all have pre-’60s earned-sex mentalities. If we stand by that property and aren’t willing to give up that property, then we end up being stuck and doomed. Then we have to sort our way through all the property lists of the unearned sex of the post ’60s.”

Part of the novel’s lyrical tone and appeal come from its three part, time-leaping structure, Hudder said.

“Much of the detective story in this case concerns how the saga is brought to light and becomes told,” he said. “In addition, unlike Nothing to Lose, the dramatic conflicts here are closer to home than narcotics, homicide or police procedure — and perhaps more satisfying and discomforting for that reason. The characters haven’t gotten crosswise with the law, but with their own experiences and decisions. A young couple faces the specter of abortion. A wife wrestles over whether her marriage has been a mistake. The idealism of the ’60s runs headlong into the practical obstacles of keeping a job and raising a family.”

Just as interesting as the parallel failing relationships of Roger and Victoria and Henry and Rebecca is the story of Henry and how he came to own the Hill Country property, the land that has rejected him.

“Henry runs away from his hometown of Pecos … just as it becomes an oil town,” Sanderson said. “He hops a freight to Los Angeles, where he lives as sort of a vagabond in the 1930s.  He comes back as a ne’er do well and is working as a cowboy with Shorty Martins, a little bitty guy that can ride well. He tells Henry that being a cowboy is a dying profession. … He tells him how to join the Army during World War II.”

Henry enlists just in time to be thrown head first into the chaos of the Normandy Invasion. His trigger finger is shot off by a Nazi sniper before Henry can even fire his first bullet.

“Henry is shipped home and told, ‘Your country owes you.’ How will it pay? We learn how Henry becomes enamored of both precocious 18-year-old Rebecca and a parcel of land in Fischer, Texas,” Hudder said. “Henry falls prey to a beautiful Hill Country landscape that he cannot escape, converted to a true believer by a land that ‘seemed to make promises. It would cooperate with humans — grow their crops, nourish their desires, support their horse farms.’ Opportunities for advancement on this property turn out to be as thin as Hill Country topsoil, and young Rebecca, stuck on this rural horse farm and taking care of two children, yearns for a different sort of nourishment. Ultimately and suddenly, she acts and abandons the family in a way that reverberates deep into the next generation, the generation Roger marries into.”

Sanderson said because the novel was written over a span of 30 years, it also details the changing demographics and personalities of two major Texas cities — Austin and San Antonio.

“I think it looks at about a 50-year span of the urbanization or … suburbanization of Texas,” he said. “You see Texas as a whole shift. You see two cities, Austin and San Antonio, headed into the direction of what they are (today). You can see a pre-commercialized, pre-nationally-promoted Texas on the verge of becoming that way. … I wrote the novel in 1985, and the revisions came between 1985 and now. The San Marcos I write about, when I went to school there, the school was maybe 8,000-10,000. The town was 12,000. Austin was 350,000. San Antonio was maybe 700,000. Driving on I-35 between Austin and San Antonio, you saw a lot of cow pastures. … What I used to do as a student, I’d get in my pickup, drive to any creek I came to, drink a beer and jump in the creek. At New Braunfels, you wouldn’t rent a tube; you brought your own. It was not that crowded. Now, it’s almost an urban center.”

In an era where the silver screen sees just as many prequels as sequels, it’s difficult to advise whether one should start with the lyrical Hill Country Property, or the murder-driven  Nothing to Lose, but either way the landscapes, gender roles and relationships make Hill Country a dynamic and fascinating read.

“The novels stand on their own, and if you get a bit of loveable, noble loser Roger Jackson and his story-spinning voice in one volume, you’ll want to go and get more of him in the other,” Hudder said.

Sanderson is scheduled to appear at Galveston Bookshop, 317 23rd St. in Galveston, on Saturday, Sept. 26, for a special book signing. For more information, call (409) 750-8200. Hill Country Property is available on Amazon.com or by visiting www.livingstonpress.uwa.edu.