Karen Olsson’s first novel focuses on the two species of citizen endemic to Waterloo, the capital of Texas: musicians and politicians. A trio of shared desires unites them: “not to have to work too hard, to be locally renowned, and to drink beer paid for by somebody else.” If this sounds like the city motto of a certain other capital of Texas, it’s because Olsson is a sort of literary Richard Linklater, grafting her fictional Austin on top of the existing town. Like Linklater’s wanderers, her characters bump up against each other, creating events out of accidental connections.
Waterloo is set in the world of journalism, which may be the only place indie rockers regularly interact with Republicans. It follows alt-weekly reporter Nick Lasseter as he halfheartedly tries to expose corruption in the office of conservative assemblywoman Beverly Flintic. Nick drifted to Waterloo after dropping out of college. Gainfully if reluctantly employed, he worries that his attempts at youthful self-destruction never succeeded: has he somehow “failed at failing”? At thirty, he’s lost the idealism that once fueled his journalistic specialty, debunking. “In general, as he got older he found that he hated and resented fewer people,” the narrator explains. “This had taken a toll on his reporting.” Nick’s new editor at the Waterloo Weekly has cancelled his column, “The Scowler,” and the club where his band used to play is closing down.
Nick may be the protagonist, but other characters receive equally sympathetic treatment. Following Beverly as she drives to her home “out in the very glaze of the suburban doughnut” or tailing Nick’s lobbyist uncle Bones to a secret meeting at a TGI Friday’s, the novel shows us Waterloo in three dimensions—four, counting time. Olsson, a Texas Monthly writer, peppers the novel with flashbacks to the civil rights movement, and though it’s clear from the scenes set in the ’50s and ’60s that politics has changed radically over the last half-century, many of the old players are still around. Even the ones who’ve died or left town still haunt the plot. When Nick attends the funeral of an old-time liberal congressman, he meets and crushes on Andrea Carter, whose father, John, was the congressman’s first black staffer. Olsson slowly unfolds their awkward courtship between scenes from Andrea’s father’s career, simultaneously showing us the bars of contemporary Waterloo and the back rooms of the city’s past.
The local barflies talk mainly about how much better things used to be, but they don’t look as far into history as Andrea’s father’s era. Nick and his friends are old enough that their bands end shows with “I’d like to thank everyone who got a sitter for tonight.” Their vision of the past involves a glorious age known as “When It Was Cheap,” and their wistfulness is almost identical to the longing conservative politicians like Beverly Flintic feel for the small town values of their youth.
But both Nick and Beverly live in modern Waterloo, where condos are advertised to “urban pioneers” and corporations pay for regulation-free “Business Improvement Zones” in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. With frank, clever prose, Olsson shows that nearly everyone who laments these changes had a hand in causing them. She knows that the city consists of people, not locations: even someone as aimless as Nick, planted at his favorite bar when he should be in the office, is a Waterloo landmark.