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Devils River, Texas, October 2011. My first paying job to combine paddling, picture-taking, and writing. More like this, please.

Oh, and since this is ostensibly about books, here’s Devils River, Treacherous Twin to the Pecos, 1535-1900, by Patrick Dearen, which I fortuitously found at the TCU Press booth while browsing the Texas Book Festival in Austin on my post-river layover.

Note the lack of apostrophe, accuracy confirmed by the United States Geographical Service’s Geographic Names Information System, keepers of river names. Multiple devils, none of them claiming dominion. Curious, that.

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My new review of David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King is just out in the Texas Observer‘s June 27 Books Issue.

It’s as if David Foster Wallace, a generation’s leading literary light, has reinvented himself in a parallel world. Not the feckless wastoid fiddling with fiction, but an anonymous David Wallace knuckled down to the genuinely heroic work of number-crunching. As one character tells another in one of The Pale King’s many veiled summations, “Sometimes what’s important is dull. Sometimes it’s work. Sometimes the important things aren’t works of art for your entertainment…” Preparing taxes, on the other hand, matters, “one of the places where a man’s civic sense gets revealed in the starkest sorts of terms …” America’s civic sense is “… adolescent—that is, ambivalent in its twin desire for both authoritarian structure and the end of parental hegemony.” We want all the entitlements of citizenship, but we don’t want to pay our taxes.

You can READ THE WHOLE THING HERE.

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Got a new review out today in the Texas Observer‘s latest biannual books issue. It’s on John MacMillian’s Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media — a subject near and dear to my heart as a longtime fan of the former and contributor to the latter. Here’s a sample of the review:

SOME PEOPLE REMEMBER EXACTLY what they were doing when Pearl Harbor was bombed or their whereabouts when JFK was shot. I remember reading my first alternative newspaper.

It was 1985, and it was called Public News—a gritty little shoestring tabloid, now defunct, that helped anchor and define Houston’s pre-gentrified Montrose neighborhood as a quasi-bohemian lodestar for those of us stuck in the suburbs. A high-school friend brought it back from a record-buying expedition, and inside its ink-smeared pages we gained our first gleanings of concepts like intentional community, participatory democracy and an aesthetic avant-garde.

Just kidding. We learned there was a band called the Butthole Surfers and that a porny art flick was screening that weekend at the University of Houston’s Clear Lake campus, an easy bike ride from our homes…

You can READ THE WHOLE THING HERE.

 

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Just did a short piece for the Texas Observer on one of my favorite Houston books, the long-out-of-print Sig Byrd’s Houston, which in my humble opinion stands tall in the company of the best of mid-century newspaper columnizing anywhere in the country.

A short excerpt of the short review:

The persons, places, and incidents in this book are real persons, places and incidents,” Byrd wrote in the book’s not-quite-boilerplate front matter. “Any resemblance between this book and a work of fiction is either coincidental or, what is more likely, is entirely in the reader’s imagination. He probably has been reading too many novels and has neglected to cultivate the acquaintance of his neighbors.”

Byrd wrote a column called “The Stroller” for the daily Houston Press in the 1950s, and later for the Houston Chronicle. These stories were adapted from the columns. Byrd did not neglect to cultivate the acquaintance of his neighbors. He found them gassed up on Milam Street’s Catfish Reef and cutting vinyl sides in the Bloody Fifth Ward, shoeing horses on Vinegar Hill, and fishing for gar in the East End’s “bilge-green bayou.” Fun-gals and law-hawks; ex-boxers and lady bouncers; pachucos, pastors, poets, and ragpickers with handles like Twitchy Tess, Deacon Neal the Gospel Man, Sam Petro the Tomato King, and Don Antonio of the Segundo Barrio—each wearing what Byrd called “the story face,” wherein he discerned “truth with the bark off.”

You can read the entire review here.

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Today the Missoula Independent published my review of Ivan Doig’s new Butte-based novel Work Song. You can READ THAT HERE, or not, but the most interesting things about Work Song was that it took me back to that other novel based in Butte: Dashiell Hammett’s first book, 1929’s Red Harvest. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

Butte’s literature is usually cast as nonfiction. From newspaperman Richard K. O’Malley’s memoir Mile High Mile Deep to C.B. Glasscock’s The War of the Copper Kings, Butte’s singular history as the motherlode of American copper production has placed it center stage for the true dramas of immigration, speculation, industrialization and labor relations, with all the real-life poetry that a multiethnic parade of hard-drinking, riches-seeking, hardrock miners and battling billionaires would suggest.

Butte novels have been rarer. Probably the most famous is Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, published in 1929, little more than a decade after Hammett had worked as a Pinkerton Agency detective in Butte (where, Hammett claimed, the Anaconda Mining Company offered him $5,000 to kill labor leader Frank Little, who soon after became the victim of an unsolved lynching). Work Song is the latest. The two make an instructive pairing.

Red Harvest is set in “Personville” (nicknamed “Poisonville,” and unmistakably modeled on Butte) circa 1920, a time of economic domination by the (here unnamed) Anaconda Company and labor unrest complicated by periodic intrusions of the radical Industrial Workers of the World. Work Song, set in an undisguised Butte of 1919, shows no compunction about vilifying the Anaconda Company by name, and its main character is suspected—wrongly, at first—of being an outside agitator.

That’s where the similarities end. Where Hammett used Butte for its atmosphere of grit and violence, Doig makes the city a character, and reduces its threat to shadows. Red Harvest is a mystery; Work Song is essentially a romance. Hammett’s story and prose are prototypically hard-boiled. You might call Doig’s poached, an early dinner at the Cracker Barrel to Red Harvest’s red-eyed breakfast at the M&M.

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This is a little on the promotional side for my self-sabotaging taste, but the Big 10 Network recently produced this video on the Knight-Wallace Fellowship, and if anyone has been wondering what the hell I’ve been doing with my year, this might provide a little insight. Plus, there are lots of pictures of the back of my head. Find them all and win something!

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This book took me longer to read than most. I set it aside for long stretches, but those stretches rarely felt as long as the stretches I spent reading it.

File this one under corporate history; fawning. It’s by some once-well-regarded hack of a newspaperman (below; author crosses self) who apparently found himself consumed by copper. The first that I found was this, at left, a hagiographic history of the Anaconda Copper Company, the mining behemoth based in Butte, Montana that dominated that state’s economy, politics, and media for the first half of the 20th century and beyond. It was sold off in 1977. BP owns its trail of destruction.

I can’t resist: Anaconda (1957) is the literary equivalent of hard-rock mining. It’s dark, dusty work and you come up with what feels like about $2 a day. I’m only reading it on the off-chance that I might remember something about it that might inform a book I might be trying to write about the Clark Fork River, which as a result of Anaconda’s operations became the most geographically extensive EPA Superfund cleanup site in the U.S., slushed full of toxic mine tailings and bleeding arsenic, a status from which it’s undergoing dramatic remediation.

Not once is an environmental concern or consequence mentioned in Isaac Marcosson’s Anaconda, which is probably the most lasting bit of learning I’ll glean from it. In official circles, nobody knew, and/or nobody cared, and/or it just didn’t matter, because there was so damn much money to be made.

Marcosson came to the subject matter organically, having already written a history of the colonial roots of the American copper refining industry: Copper Heritage (1955). It pretty much started with Paul Revere. And here I’d always thought of Revere as a silver man.

I can’t say when or if I’ll get around to reading Copper Heritage. I know Marcosson’s style now. The Anaconda Company didn’t get rich mining low-grade ore.

Much more fun and at least as informative in this endeavor is The Copper Kings of Montana, a Landmark Book about the epic territorial, litigious and legislative shit-storms between Marcus Daly and William Clark and Frederick Augustus Heinze that preceded Anaconda’s emergence as king of the Butte hill (a hill, in the middle of an American city, that the company later stripped into a pit).

The Copper Kings is peppered with two-color illustrations, prose a sixth-grader could understand (author crosses self), and a childlike appreciation for a little good conflict to move the story along. Anaconda didn’t get to be the largest and most powerful mining conglomerate in the world without stepping on a few toes (or destroying a few rivers), Marcosson unconvincingly to the contrary.

The Copper Kings is simplified truth for sure, a child’s-eye view, but in a lot of ways it’s a much more sophisticated book than Anaconda— a title so enslaved to its master that even a kid could see the chainsPlus: pictures!

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