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Loren Steffy
The Big Empty
When Trace Malloy and Blaine Witherspoon collide on a desolate West Texas highway, their fender bender sets the tone for escalating clashes that will determine the future of the town of Conquistador. Malloy, a ranch manager and lifelong cowboy, knows that his occupation—and his community—are dying. He wants new- millennium opportunities for his son, even though he himself failed to summon the courage to leave familiar touchstones behind. Witherspoon, an ambitious, Lexus-driving techie, offers a solution. He moves to Conquistador to build and run a state-of-the-art semiconductor plant that will bring prestige and high-paying technology jobs to revive the town—and advance his own career. What neither man anticipates is the power the “Big Empty” will wield over their plans. The flat, endless expanse of dusty plain is as much a character in the conflict as are the locals struggling to subsist in this timeworn backwater and the high-tech transplants hell-bent on conquering it. While Malloy grapples with the flaws of his ancestors and his growing ambivalence toward the chip plant, Witherspoon falls prey to construction snafus, corporate backstabbing, and financial fraud. As they each confront personal fears, they find themselves united in the search for their own version of purpose in a uniquely untamable Texas landscape. The Big Empty, the debut novel from longtime journalist and nonfiction author Loren C. Steffy, combines a sweeping appreciation for history and the struggles of small-town America with an examination of technology and the social and economic changes that come over time.
Journalist and nonfiction author Steffy’s accomplished debut novel, about a big tech company setting up shop in small-town America, tells an engaging story of social and economic change with historical reverberations. The narrative draws a contrast between two disparate characters, and by extension, ways of life. On one hand, there’s Blaine Witherspoon, an ambitious, Lexus-driving techie who comes to West Texas to get a state-of-the-art semiconductor plant up and running. On the other is Trace Malloy, a ranch manager and lifelong cowboy who is struggling with the obsolescence of his own way of life, even as he is unwilling to embrace the change that Witherspoon’s arrival heralds.

The novel is named for the “Big Empty” of the West Texas landscape that at times oppresses its inhabitants with its “immeasurable flatness” and “all-pervasive nothingness.” Steffy is adept at evoking this singular place and its accompanying lifestyles, and readers will often find themselves completely taken in by physical descriptions of sunsets and cowboying that proliferate the narrative. Steffy’s journalistic sensibility provides the book with a healthy dose of technical detail, which renders accounts of silicon wafers and stock market upheavals convincingly vivid. Taken as a whole, the novel conveys a panoramic perspective that acknowledges, and does justice to, disparate characters who are often worlds apart.

Some readers might find the technical details a bit overwhelming. But Steffy is always quick to draw back to the narrative thread. The story hurls forward with a steady momentum, culminating in a heady—yet still persuasively realistic—climax. At the end, what lingers are the characters themselves, whom Steffy peers into with such love and empathy that readers can’t help but root for them. Lovers of journalistic nonfiction and of local stories of the challenges of change will find much to enjoy in The Big Empty, which proves as illuminating as it is heartwarming.

Takeaway: A perceptive, empathetic novel for readers fascinated with the changes and challenges of rural America.

Great for fans of: Glen Dromgoole’s A Small Town in Texas, Kent Haruf’s Plainsong.

Production grades
Cover: A
Design and typography: A
Illustrations: N/A
Editing: A
Marketing copy: A

Southern Review of Books

"Like the titular land itself, Steffy's novel is uncompromising in spotlighting the strains that the drive toward material achievement puts on the individual in the face of nature's whims."

The Epoch Times

"The Big Empty captures a moment when Big Tech seemingly promised everything. By turns funny and painful, Steffy's story builds like an accelerating freight train, reaching a fast-paced climax."

Yes, Texas is a mess but I believe in its potential and I'm not leaving


I not only live here, I’ve spent most of my life here, and plan to keep doing so. I even decided to set my first novel here. In fact, “The Big Empty” paints a rather glorifying picture of the state and its rural inhabitants. The title comes from the nickname for much of West Texas, and I was fascinated by the expression when I first heard it. While it can be a desolate place, and the outsiders who move there in the book find the emptiness suffocating, it also serves as a blank slate upon which they cast their hopes. I deliberately set “The Big Empty” in the past, in part because I wanted it to exist in a time when politics wasn’t so divisive and average folks cared more about, say, the weather.

I wanted to write a story that caused readers — and myself as a writer — to question assumptions about the state. I wanted to give the small-town characters in the book a chance to explain why they lived the way they did.

But I also wanted to capture the sense of optimism that was swirling around the state — and the nation — at the end of the last millennium, when technology seemed a great hope that would usher in a brighter future.

That future, of course, threatened a past that many Texans dearly loved.

Years ago, as a technology reporter for an online news service, I found myself on a vast West Texas cattle ranch. The company that owned the ranch had just bought a manufacturer of ultra-pure chemicals, used to clean circuit boards. The executive I needed to interview for the story agreed to talk provided I met him at the ranch, where he was spending the weekend. The juxtaposition of a city-boy reporter chasing a tech manufacturing story on what could have been the set of “Lonesome Dove” was too great to ignore. One night, as I walked outside and stared up at the star-speckled bowl of the sky while trying to get my Motorola flip phone to find a signal, I felt as if I was straddling two Texases.

I didn’t realize it until later, but in that moment “The Big Empty” was born.