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Writing the Wave

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Anthologies are usually released after the end of a writer’s creative heyday, but the project is complicated in the case of Austin’s Bud Shrake, who perhaps more than any other Texas writer has continued through the years to reinvent himself, from newspaperman to novelist to New Journalist to screenwriter to hired hand and back to novelist again. As a result, Land of the Permanent Wave: An Edwin “Bud” Shrake Reader reads more like a biography of one of Texas’ best barely known wordsmiths.

Land of the Permanent Wave

Land of the Permanent Wave: An Edwin “Bud” Shrake Reader

Shrake co-authored Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, the best-selling sports book of all time, but that work is just one entry on Shrake’s farflung resumé. Many plaid pants-wearing fans of Penick’s golf aphorisms might be shocked to read of Shrake’s days fraternizing with hookers and gamblers on the Fort Worth Press crime beat, or his Sports Illustrated piece about snorting coke with rodeo champion Larry Mahan. Land of the Permanent Wave compiles excerpts from Shrake’s five decades and counting as a journeyman writer of anything that promised a payday, and personal letters that offer their own rewards. Shrake’s sense of humor shines through all of it. He has done his work with a wry smile and a sharp pen.

Each piece is preceded by an after-the-fact introduction from the author. These commentaries are intimate, funny, and honest, as if Shrake were peering over readers’ shoulders to provide background on the upcoming action. These brief intros steer the book’s tone away from the embalmed flavor of anthology and toward the scrapbook of memoir, and connect the disparate entries with the thread of Shrake’s sensibility.

For example: Introducing an excerpt from his 1971 Kid Blue screenplay, a Dennis Hopper western, Shrake writes about producer Marvin Schwartz. After an acid party at Hopper’s rented Mexican mansion is raided, Schwartz pays off the cops with $25,000. Shrake describes Schwartz’s subsequent meltdown, quitting show business and hitting the road:

Marvin went to Europe and traveled as a middle-aged hippie. He walked across Africa. He went to India and Tibet. Years later he turned up at my front door in Austin as a smiling, beatific, serene, Buddhist monk called Brother Jonathan. He helped build a monastery near San Francisco, where he died while kneeling at prayer.

Though the anecdote has no practical bearing on the screenplay excerpt that follows, it does contextualize the script within the period it was written. Kid Blue is a revisionist western that questions the inherent goodness of frontier industrialization. Its ethos perfectly correlates with the ’70s counterculture, when burnt-out baby boomers abandoned the overheated excess of the ’60s in search of mellower highs. Hopper’s character gets stoned with downtrodden American Indians. Long hair and boots are prevalent, the film’s aesthetic fitting the cosmic cowboy scene to a tee.

Shrake’s 2000 novel The Borderland, on a completely different hand, centers around the 1840 Comanche raid that reached the Gulf of Mexico and narrowly bypassed a fearful Austin. Along the way, white women were taken prisoner and made into slaves or wives by the warriors. In an introduction to an excerpt from the novel, Shrake recounts an editor’s response to his carefully presented pitch about the novel’s nuanced characters and historical backdrop:

At the end of the lunch Ellis said he wanted to publish the novel. We shook hands. He wrote two words on a napkin that he stuck in his pocket: COMANCHE SEX.

Amusement value aside, none of these introductions would matter if Shrake’s writing wasn’t any good. But it is.

Shrake’s prose is lean and unaffected, likely owing to his formative years as a newspaperman. His egalitarian approach leads the reader down some unexpected paths, where drugged-out cowboys or beatific songwriters offer more insight than preachers or politicians. Shrake has a reporter’s eye for fact, for describing the scene “as is,” that bolsters his best journalism and lends validity to his fiction.

Shrake cut his teeth writing 50,000 words a week-the equivalent of a short novel-for the Fort Worth Press crime beat during the ’50s. Reporters wore white shirts and neckties while covering prostitution, gambling, and murder. “Preachers and civic leaders accused us of tabloid excesses in the vivid stories we published at our dingy domain at Fifth and Jones Street in Fort Worth,” Shrake writes in one article’s introduction, “but the truth is we didn’t tell the half of it.”In 1964, Shrake followed his childhood friend Dan Jenkins to New York, where both men went to work for Sports Illustrated. Shrake was given a special credit card redeemable for first-class travel on any airline to any destination in the world. He wrote lengthy New Journalism-style pieces that were often only tangentially connected to sports. Sports Illustrated was following the convention-busting lead of Clay Felker’s New York Magazine and Jann Wenner’s Rolling Stone, with Shrake as S.I.’s analogue of Tom Wolfe or Hunter S. Thompson. His adventures, always related from a first-person perspective, are never boring. He covered distance-running Tarahumara Indians in southwestern Chihuahua, Mexico; a rodeo in President Lyndon Johnson’s hill country homeland; a 90-mile canoe trip down the Rio Grande; and a near-arrest for speeding through a gas station at 100 miles per hour with 1973 World All-Around Champion cowboy Larry Mahan.

One article Shrake’s managing editor Andre Laguerre wouldn’t print was a story about the destruction of East Texas’ Big Thicket. A lumber company had become a major stockholder in Time Inc., which owned Sports Illustrated, and had representation on the magazine’s board of directors. Lamenting the fall of the once-celebrated “writers’ magazine” to corporate climate control with Harper’s editor Willie Morris one night at Elaine’s in New York, Shrake was asked if he could rewrite the article. Morris made “The Land of the Permanent Wave” (a reference to East Texas women’s beehive hairdos) a cover story, and later bragged it up as one of the two best pieces Harper’s had published under his reign.

In that 1970 piece, Shrake’s description of a Lufkin dinner party with U.S. Congressman John Dowdy underscores the growing cultural differences between American generations:

Probably this was the first time [Dowdy] had ever been so close to a person he considered to be a Communist dopefiend hippie terrorist drunk … He knew I was a writer by trade, and thus unreliable, and it is not at all good for the Baptists in East Texas to discover their politicians have any vile habits. Most of East Texas is dry except for moonshiners and those who can afford to join country clubs or the private clubs to be found in motels. Representative Dowdy had no faith that I would not cruise the lonely roads through the pine forests shouting, “Dowdy drinks!” to the farmers on their porch swings and their wives chopping weeds in hollyhock beds in front of their wooden houses. However, a pretense of fellowship had been built up by the State Senator, Charlie Wilson … So Dowdy took a drink of bourbon and then two or three more and got interested in listening to me ….

Throughout the Harper’s story, Shrake refers to the long looks and muttered threats he receives from strangers regarding his moderately shaggy hair. As a crime-beat journalist in the ’50s, he had dressed as a clean-cut reporter, but by the late ’60s, Shrake was surfing the redneck hippie wave. Pictures show him sporting a mustache and sideburns at Willie Nelson’s Fourth of July Picnic, smoldering joint in hand.

Indeed, one key to Shrake’s literary longevity is that for a remarkably long time, Shrake not only changed with the times, he was fully of his times, and he defined those times broadly. Even as he walked the beat with Fort Worth hookers and gamblers, he enjoyed cocktails with Dallas oil money families like the Hunts and the Murchisons. After swapping bourbons with squares like Dowdy, Shrake got high with hipsters like Willie Nelson.

Anthology editor Steven L. Davis cites Shrake’s “hipness” as a reason for leaving out any excerpt from his bestseller, Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book. “To me, Bud’s the Texas equivalent of the great counterculture writers of the Sixties-Kesey, Vonnegut, Walker Percy,” Davis writes via e-mail. “… I don’t personally consider The Little Red Book to be [Shrake's] defining contribution to American literature.” The counterculture angle was probably also why Davis didn’t include anything from Bootlegger’s Boy, Shrake’s 1990 biography of former Dallas Cowboys coach Barry Switzer.

While Shrake’s journalism is always on target, his novels sometimes lag. The descriptions in But Not For Love and Strange Peaches are vivid, but the characters, at least in excerpt form, aren’t emotionally engaging. Everyone sleeps around and cheats on each other, but you don’t particularly care why. His 1973 novel Peter Arbiter, a takeoff on The Satyricon, is a satire of social hypocrisies, bold in conception and far beyond the boundaries of his previous work, but its sci-fi sex scenes ultimately come across like a goofy Penthouse Forum reject.

Brad Shrake

Although the domestic and satirical works fall a bit flat, his western fiction works well, especially in Billy Boy and Custer’s Brother’s Horse. Shrake is a man of action at heart. His years on the crime beat taught him how to establish a taut scene and make it move. When the external action overrides his characters’ internal tribulations, Shrake’s fiction finds its stride.

Despite the wide variety of excerpts collected here, the beating pulse of this anthology may be Shrake’s correspondence with fellow Texas writer Larry L. King. The two met in Washington, D.C., in 1965, recognized the kindred spirits within each other, and kept in touch. Their letters are often silly and always honest, their eloquence striking in today’s age of hurried e-mails. They touch on Shrake’s movie deals, his aspirations as a novelist, his drug and alcohol habits, his self-enforced sobriety after accidentally drinking a glass of kerosene in the early ’80s, and his hopes.

In this letter to King, dated February 12, 1998, Shrake muses about getting older:

Turning 30 hit me only in a romantic poet sort of way since we were all supposed to die pretty soon or else publish a major literary sensation. Turning 40 and 50 didn’t hit me at all because I was too drunk to notice. I was sober at 60 but couldn’t really comprehend it. Turning 65 definitely caught my attention, though it was only days before I was suddenly 66. I still don’t believe the numbers. I think I am about 40 now, though the mirror disagrees and my social life is certainly different from what it was at 40, when we stayed up all night and were incredibly charming.

Now in his late 70s, Bud Shrake probably doesn’t often stay up all night anymore. But on the evidence of this well-earned anthology, his charm is holding up just fine.

Stayton Bonner is a freelance writer working on an M.S. in agricultural communications from Texas Tech University.