RHC 2019: Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-Class Metropolis by Sam Anderson

Read Harder Challenge 2019

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: Read a book by a journalist or about journalism. 

I’ve only been to Oklahoma City once, when I went with some friends to see The Flaming Lips play the Zoo Amphitheater. I didn’t know it was going to be one of the last “pile in the car and sleep at somebody’s parents’ house” style trips of my life. I was twenty-three, freshly heartbroken, and completely unaware that the lead singer of the Flaming Lips is kind of a sketchy jerk, and it was 2006.

Under those very specific circumstances, there were few highs as high as a Flaming Lips show. I saw them a couple of times in college, but this third show was in another league. Being in an outdoor venue and on the Lips’ home turf brought a whole new dimension to the dancing Santas, the confetti cannons, and Wayne Coyne rolling around on all of our intensely loving heads in his giant plastic hamster ball. Honestly, it’s probably the best show I’ve ever been to. I know that’s not a particularly cool thing to say here in 2019, but it’s true. 

Anyway, when he started crooning “Do You Realize?” I got swept up in a wave of being incredibly sad, incredibly happy, and incredibly grateful for the friends I’d made the trip with, and I just started bawling. The stranger standing next to me in the packed outdoor venue saw this and grabbed my hand. He proceeded to hold hands with me for the duration of the song, and we’d trade little squeezes back and forth. Then when it ended, he grinned at me, said “amazing, huh?” and drifted off.

It’s one of my favorite brief, unfollowed-up-upon moments of shared human experience, and really, my only solid memory of OKC. Dude at the Flaming Lips concert who held hands with me and made me feel briefly less completely untethered without making it weird, thank you for that.

I’ve had that show and Oklahoma City on my mind, because my work-in-progress is set in Oklahoma, with the final third or so in OKC. The distance from Northwest Arkansas to Oklahoma doesn’t feel like a huge geospiritual leap to me, and I’ve felt fairly comfortable maneuvering around the fictional town of Aberdeen and my protagonist’s chaotic early twenties in OKC. Still, I’d been meaning to do some more research and hopefully make the four-hour drive to check it out for myself. 

So when I found Boom Town on the New York Times’ 100 Notable Books of 2018 list, I immediately checked it out. Novel research and a Read Harder task with one stone. Nice. 

I’m not a huge nonfiction reader. Generally, I enjoy knowing stuff I read in nonfiction more than I manage to enjoy actually reading it. I certainly did not expect this history of Oklahoma City / basketball saga to keep me up past my bedtime for several nights in a row. It’s one of the most engagingly written, funny, moving pieces of nonfiction (or fiction) I’ve read in a while. I’m confident that it will surprise you as much as it did me. 

The 2012-2013 Thunder basketball season forms the spine of Boom Town‘s structure, but it’s pinned to a history of OKC from its bonkers founding through the 2013 tornado outbreak that culminated in the El Reno tornado – the widest on record. Gary England, Oklahoma’s legendary weather forecaster, provides another major thread, as does Wayne Coyne.

As far as that goes, Anderson is much more forgiving than a lot of other things I’ve read about the singer, referring to him as OKC’s “most famous goofball clown, a one-man glitter storm, a Technicolor Rock ‘n’ roll Willy Wonka trying to make the whole world conform to his own private epic slo-mo spirit-journey mushroom-fantasy vision.” The book describes the time Coyne accidentally carried a golden hand grenade (empty) in his luggage through security at the Will Rodgers Airport, the dedication ceremony of Flaming Lips Alley in which city fathers tried to PR their way past Coyne’s enthusiastically profane speech ( “it was like hiring an actual pirate to perform at your child’s birthday”), and an idiotic/wonderful scheme cooked up after midnight at a house party to paint rainbows on the streets. 

Darting back and forth between relatively recent sports and music history and the 130 years of OKC’s existence seems like a bad and confusing idea, but it worked really well for me. It was a smart way of making Anderson’s point about the character of the city (which, admittedly, may have been somewhat engineered to match the story Anderson wanted to tell). There were also a few spots where Anderson managed some really poignant juxtaposition. He describes a moment where star player Kevin Durant, who is black, chivalrously kissed an older white lady on the top of her head to the crowd’s immense delight after she’d just been creamed by a wayward pass. From there, he launches into OKC’s shameful history of white supremacist violence and segregation.

I especially appreciated Anderson’s portraits of Roscoe Dunjee, editor of OKC’s black newspaper the Black Dispatch, and of Clara Luper, who basically desegregated downtown by staging sit-in after sit-in until establishments changed their policies, one after the other. Everything about Clara Luper, Roscoe Dunjee, and the Black Dispatch is, for lack of a better word, utterly badass. If anything, I wish he’d spent more time on all of them.

While Oklahoma City’s civil rights leaders and sports heroes were all completely new to me, the tragedies of the 1990s were not. The bombing hangs over the book, but Anderson doesn’t deal directly with it until the last few chapters. I was twelve in 1995, and my awareness of the bombing has always been a fairly vague one. I didn’t realize how deep and painful the similarities were to September 11 until I read Boom Town. Everyone in OKC in 1995 remembers exactly where they were when it happened, and Anderson includes those memories from all of his interview subjects. It was a very difficult chapter to read.

After his painful synopsis of the federal building explosion, Anderson moves into the Moore tornadoes of 1999 and 2013. These were the spots where I took the most notes for my own story, and where I got a reminder to be respectful. These storms are real, and if I’m going to fictionalize them, I have a responsibility to remember that I’m making up a story about something that has destroyed real people’s lives and will continue to do so.

Overall, the book included everything I’d expect a book about Oklahoma City to include – tornadoes, the Flaming Lips, land grab violence (I can only describe the absolutely bonkers founding of the city as a wild west version of a Black Friday sale with a lot more guns). The only thing that felt missing to me was a sustained Native voice. Gordon Yellowman (Cheyenne / Arapaho) is interviewed, but he doesn’t play as central a role as other personalities like Coyne and England do. That’s not to say that Anderson sweeps Oklahoma’s Native history under the carpet – he doesn’t. But I would have liked more.

My only other complaint is no where near as serious. I live in a college football town, and most travel pieces about Fayetteville talk about how every single person here is a rabid Razorbacks fan. We’re…not. And I’m sure that’s true in OKC as well. More than once, I thought about all the OKC residents whose only connection to the Thunder is in the moment when they suddenly realizing why traffic is so bad tonight. They don’t have much of a voice in Boom Town, but I know they exist!

Nevertheless, I highly recommend this book. 

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