Archive for the ‘nonfiction’ Category

On the 150th anniversary of the death of Henry David Thoreau (which was yesterday; I was fishing), Beacon Press asked me to write a little sumthin about about what Thoreau “meant to me as a writer.” Here’s what I came up with, or you can read it in context on Beacon’s blog, the Beacon Broadside, here.

I grew up the child of a first-generation middle-class family for whom a motorboat and a weekend place on a lake defined the lap of suburban luxury. My parents were just a generation removed from fishing for food and rural isolation as facts of life; to transform those memories of need into leisure marked their triumph over circumstance. They’d escaped. To prove it, they bought a place to escape to.

I’d never heard of Thoreau, but it was our Walden. Like Henry’s cabin, adjusted for interstates and dams, it was just north of town (Houston) on a reservoir (Lake Conroe). Curb to gate, we could drive there from home on the other side of the city in about as long as it took HDT to walk into Concord and bum a beer from Emerson. We called our place Hard Times, with the reflexive self-deprecation of insecure East Texas arrivistes.

At the other end of Lake Conroe was the only Walden I knew of: a lakefront development of condos clustered around a marina full of boats at the western end of what had once been the San Jacinto River. Walden had a golf course and tennis courts. Walden had a shop on a pier selling gasoline and life jackets and bait and polo shirts embroidered with the resort logo. Walden was the rich end of the lake. It was years before I read Thoreau’s Walden and understood the references and aspirations playing out at the rich end of the lake—and, acknowledged or not, at our end too.

What I remember of Walden is the occasional diamond clarity of its sentences, and Thoreau’s constitutional contrariness. I don’t remember his celebrations of nature so much as his condemnations of so-called civilization. To realize that developers were repackaging that contrary clarity as a hive of internal combustion, on a time-share basis no less, marked maybe my first real awareness, in retrospect, of the ways of the commercial world. They’d take a word that meant something—Walden—and turn it upside down. They’d try to fool you. They’d advertise one thing and sell you another. Your parents could do the same thing: Hard Times my ass…

Words can serve truth, or they can serve their speakers. That’s an awareness—call it a bias; fair enough—that I’ve carried through 20 years of journalism aimed, when I could see, at clarifying that which has been obfuscated. It’s a bias that informs Opportunity, Montana pretty deeply. As influences go, it’s indirect, but that’s the note Thoreau sings for me.

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I’m sorry to say that I, like apparently everybody else, too rarely go into actual bookstores anymore, primarily because I’m cheap and lazy. The exception is used bookstores, which are a different game in terms of supporting authors and publishing, which, as an aspiring participant, I really ought to do.

It’s only going to get worse now that my girlfriend got me a Kindle Fire for an early Christmas present. I’m not likely to read a lot of books e-style, what between free streams of old Arrested Development episodes and perpetual solitaire, but I’ll read a few, and they’ll inevitably whittle into my already sparse bookstoring.

Anyhow, given all that, I felt a little self-applied glow of unearned righteousness just before Christmas when I did patronize a bookstore, the excellent Shakespeare & Co. here in Missoula, to get a gift for my granny in Texas. She’s become a great reader in her elder years, and also something of an unlikely liberal, and had mentioned an interest in presidential biographies. I bought her H.W. Brand’s Franklin Roosevelt biography Traitor to his Class, which I thought she might like, not least since she grew up poor during the Great Depression and knew Roosevelt from afar as an almost perpetual presidential presence. (She’s loving the book, come to find out — probably the best-received gift I’ve ever gotten her).

Meanwhile, I’m in a great bookstore, filled with Christmas spirit and self-congratulation, and so I can hardly help but buy something for myself, especially since I’ve temporarily convinced myself that I’m god’s gift to local economies and the future of the book, a one-man hospice helper at the bedside of a dying industry, holding hands and cooing encouragement. Hell, I deserve a new book all my own…

I picked Abraham Verghese’s The Tennis Partner, despite having a preference against paperbacks and a hatred of those little P.S. book club addenda that all the bestsellers have these days. Whatever, it was cheapish, I’d heard good things about Verghese, and I had seven hours of flying ahead of me. And I’ve been obsessing over tennis since early summer when I took it up again after a 25-year absence spawned by a semi-distinguished high school career.

Verghese is foremost a physician, and the book is a memoir of his tennis-based friendship with a former low-level touring pro-turned-medical student who also happens to be a recovering addict. The book isn’t about tennis per se, though it does have some insightful writing about the sport as played at the club-enthusiast level. Mostly, though, the tennis is there as the setting that brings the two men together, and as an occasional metaphor for the back and forths of a fledgling friendship and the relapse/recovery cycle of addiction and treatment. To wit: winning a point in tennis is usually a matter of getting the ball back over the net just one more time than your opponent does.

This was good and even instructive reading for me, since I tend to try to hit winners, and I also tend to lose. Then again, I didn’t really take tennis up again to win so much as to get my ass out of a chair for a few hours a week. When I got back from Christmas in Atlanta, which I spent with family, and where I received a new racket and new court shoes as gifts, I made a date to play doubles with a couple of guys I’ve enjoyed getting to know on the  court over the past few months. One of them is a lawyer who used to work in El Paso, Texas, where Verghese’s story takes place. I asked if he’d read it.

“Oh yeah,” he said. He’d often played with ol’ Abe, a great guy, doing real well. I’d had a hard time telling from the book how competent a player Verghese was, wondering, of course, if I could take him. My lawyer friend said he was a solid 4.0 player, would fit right into the foursome we had on court.

Yeah, I figured. I could take him.

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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…



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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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I’m not much of a fisherman. I mean I was raised fishing, crappie and bass in lakes Conroe and Tyler, a little bit of coastal stuff with my dad, catfish anywhere we might find them, which was almost anywhere. My maternal grandfather was briefly a shrimp boat captain on Dauphin Island, Alabama, and I remember one trip with him where I spent hours catching little sharks and throwing up over the side. I went to southeast Alaska a few springs back and caught a 90-pound halibut in Chatham Strait, which felt like hauling a 4 x 8 sheet of plywood through 300 feet of water, but it was my buddy Brandon who actually J3072x2304-03440set the hook and gaffed it. Then again, a 90-pound fish is a two-man job.

Even when I lived in Montana for five years I never learned to fly-fish. Which is not to say I never fly-fished. I did, once, with a borrowed rod beneath a bluff called Sunset Cliff about halfway down the Smith River. My friend G.O. loaned me the rig and showed me what to do with it. I landed a little brown trout right off and let it go. The sun was setting and I was three days into a new river and the bluff was glowing and two hawks were riding the thermals and I’d just caught my first trout on a fly. It was one of those unimprovable moments, so I gathered up my gear and left it at that.

9780816665327.bigBut learning to fly-fish is a different thing, and learning to fly-fish in Montana is like learning to say the rosary in the Vatican. It’s intimidating.

I wrote a column in the new Texas Observer about trash fish, and fishing literature, and a less successful fishing trip. YOU CAN READ IT HERE. If you like it, or hate it, I’m sure the good Observer folks would welcome any comments. Here’s an excerpt:


The granddaddy of them all, the ultimate bigger-than-yours fishing tale, The Old Man and the Sea, ought truly be titled The Old Man and the Marlin. I just read it again. It’s still pretty plain. It’s still really depressing. It remains a remarkably humble disguise for a pompous treatise in defense of just keeping on, with sadness galore and a little bit of honor, by a writer who offed himself in his bathrobe just seven years after winning the Nobel Prize.

Even when you catch the fish, the fish isn’t necessarily yours to keep.

Speaking of trash fish, here’s a video, just for shits and cringes, of two self-congratulatory doorknobs murdering a dinosaur.


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P1010348This is Caddo Lake, in northeast Texas, near the township of Uncertain. You probably recognize it from the picture, which looks almost exactly like 48 quadrillion other pictures of Caddo Lake. It’s sort of a ridiculous place to take pictures.

But a friend and I went up there last weekend and paddled around and took some pictures anyway. Here’s another one.

P1010363This was a little sloughy connector between higher-traffic channels. It had some current in it, which I wasn’t expecting, and this was taken after we’d paddled upstream and intersected a waterway called Government Ditch, which was a mostly straight-edged cut through the swamp buzzing with bassboats and jet skis. Man I fucking hate jet skis.

We’d just turned around and were headed back downstream toward the main lake when I took that img040picture. In another 20 minutes we’d pass again an alligator that I’m putting at a considered and solid 10 feet. It just sank and swirled when we’d passed it coming upstream, and surprised us, since the local word is that gators are a rare backwater sight, despite the place being lousy with them. When we passed it going back we didn’t even see it, just suddenly heard it over our right shoulders on shore, thrashing like something very heavy trying to snap something else’s neck. That time put the heebie-jeebies into me.

At the flea market in Uncertain, headed out of town, I found this absolute score for the budding river books collection. The subtitle—”A history of the conquistadors, voyageurs, and charlatans who discovered, opened up, and exploited the Father of Waters”—is worth the $2 all by itself, even if it weren’t a first.

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51KKb7bk2VL._SL500_Incredibly dumb things I have done in cars: Drive a 1980 Chevy Suburban (my dad’s) with a loose steering gear from Clear Lake City to Galveston while touching the wheel with nothing but my teeth; drive a sixth-hand 1970 Porsche 914 (mine) at 120 miles per hour up I-45 to Conroe in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter, drunk as a skunk; lose my virginity in the uncomfortably humped back seat of a 1984 Camaro (my mom’s), or try to anyhow, until that bored campus cop showed up with a flashlight and not enough sense to mind his own damn business; and crack.

Incredibly fun things I have done in cars: driving the Suburban to Galveston with my teeth; stem-winding that little Volks hybrid up to the lake with the Targa top stowed; and getting more or less laid for the first time. (The crack was a terrible idea to start with and, as it turned out, cut to the point of pointlessness with soap, and therefore no fun at all.)”

That’s from my recent Texas Observer column on P.J. O’Rourke’s Driving Like Crazy, which is funny as hell, and stupid as shit. You can READ THE REST OF IT HERE if you like.

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I was just thinking about John Updike.

Well, the titular part is over.

I don’t recall ever reading anything by John Updike that made me just stop and admire, as pretty a writer as he was, but I have to qualify that statement by acknowledging that what I’ve read is a pretty drastic minority of everything he wrote, which is, in fairness, as much his fault as mine. Maybe I missed something.

The memoirs — love the classical plural — were his 37th book, published about 20 years ago. I read today somewhere that he wrote three pages a day. That’s what three pages a day will get you. Math.

David Foster Wallace claimed to be one of Updike’s last fans in an otherwise eviscerating review of Updike’s 1997 novel Toward the End of Time — a review snottily (but rockingly) titled “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think” in Wallace’s Consider the Lobster collection.

img017And no US novelist has mapped the inner terrain of the solipsist better than John Updike, whose rise in the 1960s and ’70s established him as both chronicler and voice of probably the single most self-absorbed generation since Louis XIV.”

  • (Solipcism: 1. The theory that the self is the only thing that can be known and verified. 2. The theory or view that the self is the only reality. Compare objectivism. —American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 1969″)

They were different kinds of florid, Wallace and Updike, and different kinds of unlikely to be replaced on their particular pedestals.

And it seems incredibly unlikely that henceforth any American writer’s career will look anything like the cradle-to-grave sinecure Updike was born into. It’s like his job was America’s Writer, and he got the job right out of college.

I’d say it looks like he used his luck awfully well.

Our sympathies to Nicholson Baker.

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p1000325Ah, winter canoe camping. Dec. 12-14 me and my buddy Forrest drove about 5 hours east and spent 2.5 days and 2 nights paddling about 40 miles of the Neches River. This sandbar was our first night’s campsite. It was actually pretty mild, weather-wise. The night before, truck-camping at some backwood RV park, our tents iced over.

nechesbook1Our stretch of the river started about a dozen miles below B.A. Steinhagen Lake, which means Paddling the Wild Neches, at left, leaves off just about where we started. Not that the lower river isn’t wild. It’s bounded on both banks by the Big Thicket National Preserve and the only bridges that cross the Neches for 42 river miles are at the put-in and the take-out. In two and a half days we saw two other humans, both in the same jonboat. We saw them going upstream on day two, and back downstream about 20 minutes later.

But the lower river isn’t completely isolated, and the jonboaters were probably headed to or from one of a dozen or so fishing shacks moored along the shores. Most of which seemed to be in pretty bad shape in the wake of hurricane Ike, which blew through here something fierce a couple of months ago.

p1000425A lot of people used this river and its bottoms for whatever the hell they wanted to for years before the federal government kicked them out in the 1970s. The fishing shacks were grandfathered in as a traditional use. Most of them are connected to land by some sort of gangplank, but they’re fully floating on foundations of oil drums and styrofoam block. I assume they’re built this way because it’s the only viable way to build in a bottomland flood zone where a rise of just a few feet would hubbardinundate thousands of acres. There just isn’t much high ground out there.

The camps reminded me of Harlan Hubbard, who spent a good amount of time living on hand-built houseboats he called “shantyboats” on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. His Shantyboats on the Bayous, which I’ve given away, is an account of that life, which seemed like the most romantic thing in the world to me at one time. But even Hubbard — a painter and musician and free spirit — eventually set up camp on dry land. Payne Hollow is his book about that life.

There are MORE NECHES PICTURES on my flickr page in the RIVER TRIPS set.

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1974 Photo © By Jill Krementz as published in the Washington Post

1974 photo © By Jill Krementz as published in the Washington Post

Cultural critic John Leonard got the standard POSTHUMOUS OVATIONS on the occasion of his lung-cancer death November 5 — (and wouldn’t it have been fun to read a John Leonard piece, maybe in New York, dissecting what the flapping-gum salutes to his recently departed self had to say about recent tilts of the landscape in the American business of literary letters?) — and that’s when I found an exhumed 2000 Nation essay that I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t read before, despite the fact that it must surely be one of the best things ever written about the odd thing that I’ve spent most of my professional life — on stages far smaller than those Leonard strode — doing: reviewing books and stuff. In the Nation essay, titled HOW A CAGED BIRD LEARNS TO SING, Leonard writes:



We may belong to what the poet Paul Valéry called “the delirious professions” — by which Valéry meant “all those trades whose main tool is one’s opinion of one’s self, and whose raw material is the opinion others have of you” — but reporters, critics and “cultural journalists,” no less than publicists, are caged birds in a corporate canary-cage. Looking back, I see what I required of my employers was that they cherish my every word and leave me alone. If I understand what Warren Beatty was trying to tell us in the movie Reds, it is that John Reed only soured on the Russian Revolution after they fucked with his copy.


leonardI am aware that my own regard for books is overly worshipful — one part Hegel, two parts Tinkerbell, with garnishes of Sacred Text, Pure Thought and Counter-Geography — at a time when most of the dead trees in the chain stores have titles like How I Lost Weight, Found God, Smart-Bombed Ragheads, and Changed My Sexual Preference in the Bermuda Triangle. But I also know it’s just as hard to write a bad book as a good one, and a lot easier to review one than achieve one, and if book critics in mainstream newspapers and magazines seem to have appointed themselves the hall monitors of an unruly schoolboy culture — this one gets a pass to go to the lavatory; that one must sit in the corner wearing a dunce cap — then it is a condescension and a contempt passed down and internalized from bosses . . . for whom the whole process is a whimsical scam. 

Sing it, sister. I’ve got some catching up to do.

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