The publisher is 31 - and looks 45. The editor never went to journalism school. That's okay, neither did his writers. They are poets and lawyers, a former yard man, a North Dallas housewife, a wild man named "Jap," even an old roughneck off a West Texas oil rig. But the lot of them can make black type on a white page stand up and talk to you.

Listen: "He was a prideful old man who had logged millions of miles, made plenty of money and forced a President from office. But on the late summer evening when he returned to Washington to investigate Congress, Leon Jaworski was still fighting off the sharks."

Listen again: "A solitary autobus no larger than a sandflea jams gears and belches smoke as it crawls up the mountain and disappears down the single road to civilization. That's my bus I am watching vanish . . ."

Those two openings (to a pair of 10,000-word stories, the first on Leon Jaworski, the second on Baja California) appeared in recent issues of a magazine named Texas Monthly - which has become about the hottest thing in Texas since jalapeno chiles. And with an estimated readership of 1 million people and a current issue of 252 ad-fat pages, "The Monthly," as people down here call it, seems neatly poised to blast off toward national fame.

It already has been recognized nationally by its peers. In its first year of publication, the magazine won Columbia University's coveted national magazine award (prompting publisher Mike Levy, who went to the Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia, to wonder in a publisher's column if all those New York slickers didn't half expect him and editor Bill Broyles to pick up the award in pointy-toed boots and string ties).

Some, of course, would say there isn't much competition - that good journalism in Texas, whether magazine or newspaper, has always seemed more wishful thinking than accomplished fact.

Texas has 267,339 square miles and 12.5 million people. It has three of the country's 10 largest cities and 17 per cent of its population. It is our Saudi Arabia of oil - and a place where there are still more cattle than people.

It is the keeper of America's greatest legend, the cowboy, even though four out of every five Texans live in cities. It is a place of computers and lonely spaces, of boorish violence and stores that rival Manhattan's. It is, in short, like living in Rome and on the frontier at the same moment.

And yet, for all those fertile myths and contradictions, the state has never seemed able to put out a decent magazine or newspaper.

Almost never, that is. There is The Texas Observer, for several decades one of America's most distinguished liberal journals, which survives - on a shoestring - in a coverted house on West Seventh Street in Austin. Writers and editors like Willie Morris (an adopted Texan), who later went on to edit Harper's, cut their teeth on The Observer, pricking the diurnal balloons of state legislators. But The Observer was a lone voice in a vast wilderness. It was almost axiomatic that if you were a promising young man and wanted to write, you had to go East, become an "expatriate."

Reclaiming native sons and keeping the good ones home were two of Mike Levy's goals when he graduated from the University of Texas Law School and set out to start a magazine in 1972. The then 25-year-old publisher (who is balding, wears three-piece suits and talks with trip-hammer speed) had worked for UPI while in college; he also had sold advertising for a publication he admired, Philadelphia magazine. After six months and 300 interviews, Levy found his editor: lanky, soft-spoken Bill Broyles, a then 27-year-old assistant superintendent of Houston's public schools. Broyles, a former Marine and Rhodes scholar, had worked briefly for a Houston newspaper and had written some pieces for the British weekly, The Economist. That about summed up his journalistic experience.

"The important thing to remember," Broyles says now in his easy drawl, "is we never knew what we were doing."

"I was scared to death that we might not have an audience, that I dreamed all this up," says Levy.

It was no dream. Six months after initial publication in February 1973, Texas Monthly's circulation had reached 30,000; after 18 months, there were 84,000 subscribers. Since then the magazine's fortunes have shot up like an oil well. The Monthly now averages 1,200 advertising pages a year and has a base-rate subscription of 215,000.

The magazine's offices have also shot up - 16 plush floors above the city, in the glass-and-steel Austin National Bank Tower. The decor is Madison Avenue, with a view of the Colorado River thrown in. It is not atypical to see a neatly folded Wall Street Journal on the editor's desk. Broyles, though, shuns three-piece suits for corduroys and Earth Shoes.

It is all a bit diferent from the brokendown, two-storey building near the state capitol where the magazine started. "You went up a stairway to about six open rooms," remembers Griffin Smith Jr., an editor now on leave, something fond in his voice. "I didn't even have a typewriter. There was desk, but it was impossible to write in the place. There were bats and ants and people on top of everybody. The magazine just sort of grew up there."

Along the way it began skinning back pretensions like dried bark. "One of the reasons we've been successful," says Levy, "is that we've managed to p-off everybody in the state." There have been tough stories on Houston's super law firms, on the fat cats of Dallas banking, on the red neck as the new American hero, on Tom Landry and his sacred Cowboys. The writing is lively, the graphics slick as a grease door knob. (Sybil Newman Broyles is the design director of Texas Monthly. "An art editor I can live with," quips Bill Broyles, her husband.)

The Monthly, not unlike other magazines, has always been two-tracked: combining serious, substantive journalism with consumer and "coping" stories - the stuff you have to run to sell copies. People close to Broyles say he personally has that alchemy of flash and substance that has made the magazine go.

There was one serious flare-up between editor and publisher more than a year ago (it had to do with what some termed a "hysterical" memo by Levy concerning offending advertisers), prompting Broyles to take a long vacation. Generally, people say, Broyles runs his part of the place with certainty and a low-key style.

And yet, for all its heady success, some are wondering if The Monthly in recent issues hasn't lost an editorial edge, if it hasn't, in fact, grown a trifle soft, even balmy. The problem, people say, seems to be one of balance - there have been too many "Best Apple Pie in Texas" stories.

(That one, in fact, in May 1977 issue, ignited a small controversy. Nettie Daniels, a black woman, was named creator of Texas' best apple pie; but the picture on the magazine's cover promoting the piece was of a white grandmotherly lady. Jim Hightower, editor of The Texas Observer across town, brought up the apparent discrepancy, whereupon an angry Broyles fired off a letter denying any intentions of racism. Covers are always representational, he said; and besides, the art work had been shot before the winner was picked. "I'm not suggesting Texas Monthly or Bill Broyles is racist," says Hightower. "But in that instance I think we were right." Interestingly, the cover of the current issue features a young white woman chumming with a folksy-looking black woman - keying to a story on Texas women and their maids.)

Broyles demurs on the question of softness, of course, saying there is as much substance now as ever. "In fact, the problem is trying to come up with inspired fluff ideas. Got any?"

Articles on the state's best ethnic bands (in the July issue) or on "The Honest Massage, Plus 20 Other Rare Gift Ideas" (in the November issue) have always been the wrapping for penetrating pieces on Leon Jaworski or the dope smuggling trade. And the magazine has been no slouch at generating controversy. After a lengthy piece in September on corruption in the Houston Police Department, chief Harry Caldwell went on the radio to pronounce it "garbage . . . the work of an obvious cop-hater." Broyles blithely reported that review in his editor's column.

It's not unusual, says Broyles, for writers to take two months to research and write a 10,000-word piece. "So much of the writing today is Nacho journalism, just munchy chips of information. We'll spend as much as it takes to research a story and give it as much space as it needs." (Levy and Broyles say they now spend up to $70,000 per issue on editorial, counting staff salaries.) But they still have to "scramble for each issue. We're not like The new Yorker with a year's backlog of copy. We have virtually no inventory. We're right on the edge." Broyles has been known to spend 70 hours a week in his office.

Still, says Broyles, "It's pretty clear that on a given day, we can go out and play anybody." Which is due, of course, as much to the writers as to the editors. They are an odd lot - no one will argue - which probably explains why they're so good. The only problem is thatsome of them have come up missing of late.

Larry L. King, the most famous Manhattan cowboy of them all, has been busy working on a play (remembrances of brothels past) and a book with Bobby Baker; Broyles went to see him recently to coax him back into the magazine. Griffin Smith - who everybody says was a "constipated lawyer" till he found journalism - is at the White House on indefinite leave. Jim Fallows, a former associate editor, also writes speeches for Jimmy Carter.

Billy Porterfield, who drives a Jeep (with saws in the gun rack), who is as roundly squat as the Frito Bandito and who takes to macho hats and Charlie Dunn boots, has had a job in Dallas public television for the last year and a half; he hopes now to get back in the magazine.

Others are still around. Prudence Mackintosh is a North Dallas housewife with three kids and an Erma Bombeck touch; her "Lifestyles" column is one of the most popular in the magazine. Steve Harrigan (away on a fellowship for a few months) is editor of a poetry magazine and was once yard man for Bill Broyles. "He's a better writer than he was a yard man," says Broyles, "and he was a damn fine yard man." Greg Curtis, a senior editor who was Broyles' roommate at Rice, has written about sports, records, business - almost anything that comes up. John Graves, a paunchy, self-reliant farmer from tiny Rose Glen, Tex., has added an elegiac tone with his "Country Notes" column. Arguably, he is the best living writer in Texas.

The comer of the magazine is 26-year-old Harry Hurt Ill, son of a Houston oil man and a graduate of Harvard. "I found journalism in the Northeast kind of directionless," Hurt says. "I came home the The Monthly and found things wide open. I couldn't have written a better ticket." Hurt wrote the profile of Jaworski in the November issue.

The acknowledged wild man of the magazine is Gary Cartwright, better known as "Jap." Cartwright, who has written memorable pieces on private investigators and families on welfare, among others, is supposedly one-quarter Comanche. He got his start back at the old Ft. Worth Press, along with Dan Jenkins and Bud Shrake, both now at Sports Illustrated. The story goes he was sitting at his desk one day when somebody walked in and said: "Who's that guy over there? He looks like a Jap." The name stuck.

So did his rep for savagery. Author Pete Gent ("North Dallas Forty"), who has known Cartwright since 1964, says, "The man could have easily lived all those Hunter Thompson 'Fear and Loathing' sagas." Newsweek writer Pete Axthelm, another friend, says, "There was a time when Gary seemed completely off the track of his career. I think Texas Monthly has helped reclaim him."

That sort of rescue, in fact, might be the young magazine's brightest legacy. "Texas Monthly serves a vital function in "Texas," says Jim Hightower. "Keeping writers alive." Adds Billy Porterfield: "The Monthly's been a lifeline for us all. You get the idea you don't have to leave."

Clay Felker, long-time editor of New York and now of Esquire, once said that publications are something like people. They have a childhood, they have middle years, and then they grow old. It seems clear now that Texas Monthly, after half a decade of brilliant caterwauling, is entering a middle, more mature period. What it does in that period will be interesting to watch.

The other evening, after a rambling phone conversation about his magazine, Bill Broyles sucked in a breath and said this:

"Texas is a very American place, maybe the most American place. We're not tied to a European culture like you folks are in the East. Nor must we build a brave new one like they have in California. It's kind of exciting to think that out here, on the edge of the old frontier, we could have a journal that reads as well as any you'd find anywhere. And the thing is, we're just starting to feel we know what we can do . . ."