There’s something off-kilter about East Texas. It hosts a culture in which the traditions of the rural South and the rural West mix in strange patterns, echoing the forested fade between the bayous of Louisiana and the hills and plains of Texas. The perfect landscape, in other words, to give rise to a writer as all over the map as Joe R. Lansdale.
Lansdale, who’s been known to write for the Observeron occasion, is a fiercely prolific author with an unabashedly weird sensibility. Over the course of his career he’s picked up eight Bram Stoker Awards and produced a small library’s worth of short fiction, novels, comics and screenplays ranging from supernatural Westerns to pineywoods noir.
Lansdale tells all his tales with a straight face that plays up the sly, wicked humor bubbling underneath. All of his work, fiction and nonfiction alike, is filtered through an absurdist sensibility that Lansdale attributes to his home region. “There’s plenty of noir right here in East Texas,” Lansdale wrote in an Observer piece a few years ago. “Though it’s mixed with Southern Gothic and Western and all manner of stuff; it’s a gumbo boiled in hell … Weird as some of it is, fictionalized as the work is, it comes from a wellspring of true events you just can’t make up.”
Lansdale will be at the Wittliff Collections in San Marcos on Thursday, Oct. 9 to participate in “East Texas in Story and Song,” an event celebrating literature based in the region. He’ll be joined by his daughter Kasey Lansdale, a country singer-songwriter who’s scheduled to perform selections from her new album, Restless. Also appearing is Wes Ferguson, author of Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine, and an East Texas journalist whose work has also appeared in the Observer.
The event is free, though guests are asked to RSVP to [email protected]. There will be a signing after the program.
It’s impossible to talk about the Civil War without considering the strange place it holds in American history as a founding myth. For the South in particular, the Civil War is still a defining cultural moment, in which a pantheon of men fought for a glorious lost cause.
That’s nonsense, of course. The cause was neither glorious nor, unfortunately, entirely lost. Remnants of the old Southern order cling to power even today, and the motives driving the conflict and its participants are well excavated. But the figures caught up in that struggle are still fascinating, and few of them more so than Stonewall Jackson.
The legendarily truculent general is the subject of Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson, a new book by Pulitzer Prize-nominated historian and journalist S.C. Gwynne. A longtime Texas resident, Gwynne spent 14 years writing for Texas Monthly and won widespread acclaim—as well the Texas Book Award—for his 2010 book Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. Gwynne lives in Austin.
Rebel Yell explores the life and military career of a man contemporaries found both deeply odd and infuriatingly secretive. Jackson was famous for his quirks. “There never was a greater sleeper,” John Esten Cooke wrote in Stonewall Jackson: A Military History, noting that Jackson could pass out anywhere from the back of a horse to a military meal tent with food still in his mouth. Jackson believed that one arm was longer than the other and rode from place to place with the offending limb raised to improve its circulation. But he also made his reputation, Rebel Yell suggests, by being a forceful and dangerous commander, the kind of man Southern historians would hold up as a champion after his death. While Jackson’s end was inglorious—he was killed by friendly fire—the mythology surrounding him has grown steadily since his death, and his tactics and campaign strategies during the early part of the war are still studied as models of military acumen.
When Michael Morton walked out of prison in 2011, it was the close of a story that would put most legal thrillers to shame. Having spent 25 years in jail following a wrongful conviction for the murder of his wife, Morton was finally a free man, and he would eventually see the man who sent him away put—if only briefly—behind bars.
Morton tells that story in his new memoir, Getting Life: An Innocent Man’s 25-Year Journey from Prison to Peace. A review of the book will run in the new Books Issue of the Observer (check this space in early October), and Morton is slated for an appearance (details TBA) at the Texas Book Festival during the weekend of Oct. 25-26. If you’d like to hear what he has to say before that, though, Morton will present the book and speak at Austin’s LBJ Library on Tuesday, Sept. 30. He’ll be joined by Barry C. Scheck, co-founder and co-director of The Innocence Project, the nonprofit that utilizes DNA evidence to help overturn wrongful convictions.
Morton’s story is a remarkable one. He was arrested as the only suspect in the 1986 beating death of his wife in the couple’s home near Austin. Williamson County District Attorney Ken Anderson was later found to have withheld evidence that could have proved Morton’s innocence. Despite the testimony of his 3-year-old son, who witnessed the crime and claimed that his father wasn’t home at the time, Morton was convicted and given a life sentence. He spent almost a quarter-century behind bars, and was freed only after attorneys affiliated with The Innocence Project ran DNA tests on a bloody bandana found at the crime scene. Test results identified DNA from a known felon, Mark Norwood, who had killed another Texas woman in the time since Morton’s conviction. As a result of The Innocence Project’s work, Morton was exonerated. Anderson was later convicted for withholding evidence and spent five days in jail. .
Morton and Scheck will discuss the events behind Getting Life in a talk moderated by Mark Updegrove, director of the LBJ Library.
Attendance is exclusive to members of the LBJ Library, and costs $10 for their guests. The program includes a book signing prior to the talk and a reception following. Copies of Getting Life will be available for purchase.
When Charles Bowden, the prolific investigative journalist and writer, died in his sleep on Saturday, Aug. 30, at the age of 69, it was an uncannily quiet end for a man who’d spent his life recording turmoil and violence along the Mexican-American border in prose that cut through the fog of political rhetoric to reach the harsh realities of the desert Southwest. Bowden forged his career primarily in Arizona. He died in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in recent years.
To mark Bowden’s passing, the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University has opened an archive of Bowden’s papers and published work for research. The collection stretches to 50 linear feet of boxes stuffed with correspondence, research materials, photographs and manuscripts that span Bowden’s career up to 2007.
Bowden’s life was dominated by the border. Over the course of more than 100 articles and 25 books, he dug deeply into topics as diverse as ecology, crime, drugs and social policy. His attention fell equally on people and the environment in which they live, and most of the books he published with University of Texas Press explored the interwoven fate of landscapes and their inhabitants. His first book with UT Press, Killing the Hidden Waters, focused on the dwindling water resources of the western states. Another, Inferno, explored the Sonoran Desert with photographs by Michael P. Berman. Exodus, a collaboration with photographer Julian Cardona, examined both migrants and the people who prey on them. In 2010 UT Press published The Charles Bowden Reader, a collection of essays and excerpts from his major books.
Bowden’s former editor at Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery, described him in a remembrance as a mix between Humphrey Bogart, Sam Elliott and True Detective’s Matthew McConaughey. Conversations with Bowden, she recalled, were like reading his writing: a steady stream of subjects, references and ideas. “That he died in his sleep,” she wrote in an obituary, “and not at the hands of the cartels, or the coyotes, or dirty cops on either side of the border, is something.”
The violence that Bowden witnessed as a reporter infected his work, and he spent a lot of time dissecting his own reactions to violence. In “The War Next Door” he described receiving a call from a friend in Juarez. “He says a man just put a gun to his head and threatened to kill him,” Bowden wrote. “He wants me to call his wife if he turns up dead and explain what happened. I hang up and go back to reading a book. That is what the numbness feels like.”
The situations Bowden documented were stark and often murderous, and he had no patience for people who proposed easy solutions to complex problems. He wrote to expose the truth as he saw it, however cruel or uncomfortable. “The world is rushing in,” he wrote in the same article, in reference to climate change. “We can hardly alter that fact if we continue to believe in fantasies.”
Lawd aw’mighty, it’s a relief to read a recently written novel set in New Orleans before Katrina. Not that there was ever anything innocent about the Big Easy, but something irreplaceable was lost when people died on the runway because the Secret Service grounded medevac flights for hours on end so President Bush could have the skies over the Crescent City to himself for a long-overdue P.R. flyover. So it is with fond nostalgia that we set the Wayback Machine to the year 2000 and visit the Faubourg Marigny with author Rod Davis’ protagonist Jack Prine, who makes his debut here in what appears to be the first book of a new and welcome detective series.
Prine is an interesting piece of work, even in the context of New Orleans, “where the nation’s leftovers tend to form up like lines of seaweed on the sand.” A veteran of the secret and often violent world of Army Intelligence in Cold War-era Korea, Prine finds himself making ends meet as an unofficial private investigator and freelance writer after a career in mainstream broadcast journalism ended with an episode of Felony Assault on an Editor—which, of course, is every reporter’s fantasy. Prine is not quite as hard-boiled as, say, Mike Hammer, but he’s definitely been on the griddle a few minutes past over-medium.
During an early morning stroll through the streets downriver of the French Quarter, Prine realizes that what at first appears to be a sleeping drunk on the sidewalk is, instead, the corpse of a young African-American homosexual whose skull has been caved in by blunt trauma. It’s the sort of thing that can complicate a morning walk, and to complicate things further, the corpse—one Young Henry, known more formally as Terrell Henry Meridian—has a sister named Elle, who herself adds a new definition to the word “complicated.” Also smart, lovely and troubled—but definitely more complicated than your average distressed damsel with unfinished business in the Delta. This is obviously an occasion requiring a knight in tarnished armor. Enter former Lieutenant Prine.
Thus begins a picaresque romp from New Orleans across the Delta and back again, through poverty and wealth and race and greed and betrayal and loyalty, echoing with Southern heritage and literature. Elle’s description of the Natchez Trace’s Witch Dance campground (“It isn’t even history. It’s barely even hearsay.”) is a far better Faulkner joke than I could come up with. But then I would rather read Joyce than Faulkner, and I’d prefer a recreational organ transplant to either. Still, the nod is one of the novel’s frequent subtle reminders that South, America is a bit more ambitious than your average detective thriller. I’m fairly sure there’s a reference to Langston Hughes’ “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” on page 85.
To fulfill the genre requirements, there is also a valuable stolen painting, a secret 8-figure inheritance from the white side of Elle and Young Henry’s family, an assortment of villians comprising blood relatives and mafiosos representing both Dixie and Jersey varieties, and a respectable level of violence and mayhem. No detective thriller is complete without the hero taking an ass-whuppin’ that leaves him pissing blood and vowing bloody retribution to follow. South, America is complete.
There is much here that brings to mind the Dave Robicheaux novels of James Lee Burke, and Burke’s norteamericano version of magical realism. South, America‘s version involves Elle’s aunt in the Delta, who is schooled in the vodou tradition. Davis handles this sensitive (especially in the hands of a Caucasian scribe) subject respectfully and well, without attempting to plumb the topic’s depths as found in J.J. Phillips’ Mojo Hand and A.R. Flowers’ DeMojo Blues. This isn’t anthropology, after all, and when the forces of evil are arrayed against you, a little bit of chanting and the blood of a freshly killed pigeon is like chicken soup for a cold—it cain’t hoit.
If there’s a gripe, it regards a trend in thriller writing that amplifies locale verisimilitude with regional food writing. Houston native John Lescroart excels at this, and no Burke book set in Louisiana is complete without a mouthwatering descriptions of etouffee and dirty rice. Davis, during long career in magazine journalism (including a spell as editor of The Texas Observer) once edited something called Cooking Light Magazine, and that experience seems to have seeped into his descriptions of cuisine in the land of the deliciously greasy spoon. One roadside stop includes a repast of Delta tamales, whose mysterious origins are a source of debate, but for the most part Prine and Elle pursue their mission with arterial plaque as a hazard avoided. I, personally, would rip my tongue out with rusty serving tongs before I ordered a grilled chicken sandwich at a ramshackle burger-and-blues joint in the Delta, but then this is only the start of what promises to be a fresh new series of thrillers. Perhaps a sequel will find Prine, .45 tucked beneath his shirt, at a café somewhere near Itta Bena savoring the legendary Floating Cheeseburger.
For readers’ sakes, if not for Prine’s, I sincerely hope those sequels are on the way.
My first exposure to ‘“Alt Lit” was about a year ago. I was idly scrolling through my Tumblr feed when I stopped at a post, offering nothing but a link labeled“make something beautiful before you are dead.”Curious, I clicked the linkand was delivered to a YouTube video of a gap-toothed young man running through a wet field, exuberantly extolling the beauties of life, pastiching (or parodying?) YouTube vlogs and slinging pop-culture references to Justin Bieber and Dog the Bounty Hunter. With the camera held precariously in one hand and trained tightly on himself—often at an uncomfortably intimate distance—he shouts, “Back in my grandfather’s day, they didn’t have YOLO. We have YOLO. We have to harness this GIFT!” YOLO, of course, is acronymized shorthand for You Only Live Once. The narrator’s name is Steve Roggenbuck, and the proclamations and exhortations that fill out the remainder of the 3:05 video are similarly affirming and equally absurd.
I felt strangely uplifted. Was this poetry? Over the next year I began to see glimpses of a similar style of expression in my social media feeds. They were barely distinguishable from the white noise of Web 2.0, but just slightly more meditated and self-consciously poetic.
I’d discovered Alt Lit, but defining it proved more difficult. So I sat down with Austin-based Alt Lit author No Glykon (real name: Trey Greer) to find out more about the scene.
Waylon Cunningham: How would you explain Alt Lit to a 40-year-old from Cincinnati?
No Glykon: In probably the most simple terms, it’s Internet writing. It’s using the tools of the Internet and the figures of speech of the Internet to write. You know, like typing in all caps, typing in no caps, using misspelling and those types of figures of speech in your poetry and prose.
WC: There seems to be more to it than a merely casual copy-editing style, though.
NG: I often think that punk is analogous to Alt Lit. Poetry really never had its punk. There’s no one that ever really said, “It’s okay to write shit.” But for punk, it’s “learn three chords and you have a song.” I think Alt Lit is like that. It’s crude, it’s DIY. A bunch of people who were publishing poetry on the Internet just became friends. A lot of them are timid about even using the word Alt Lit to describe themselves, myself included. I don’t even know how big it is. Sometimes I’ll see an article in The Guardian or New York Times about some character in the scene, and I’ll be like, “Hmm, that’s weird. That guy.” In my perspective, it’s just people I’ve become friends with. And you know, I think it’s just not necessarily something solid that you can add a very strict definition to. And there’s not really somebody in the community who is putting definitions on things. There’s no [Andre] Breton who’s writing manifestos on Alt Lit. Or if there are, I don’t know who they are.
NG: He definitely got a lot of people interested in using the language of the Internet. He just got published by Vintage, too, actually. But I think he’s sort of dissociated himself with a lot of those people. And he did that before a lot of people even described their work as Alt Lit. But it would be silly to deny Tao Lin being part of the community.
WC: Would you consider Alt Lit accessible to most people? Some have accused the scene of being opaque and ambiguously ironic.
NG: I don’t think that’s true. I think a lot of these authors are shooting for honesty in a really confessional way. It’s accessible in that you don’t have to know anything about poetry to know what people are doing. It’s not accessible if you don’t know what the hashtag shit on Twitter or Tumblr is. If you have the mindset where you’re thinking that interfacing via social media is not a real way of interacting with people, if you’re that type of Luddite, then you’re gonna struggle to understand what is even being said. But I think that if you’re open and excited about the Internet, and it blows your mind all the time, then you’ll probably understand. I don’t think that the message or the themes that are being used are inaccessible. I think that the writing is actually very accessible.
WC: Would you say that Texas has a large Alt Lit presence?
NG: Much more than most states, it does. I think the main saturation is in Chicago. But Alt Lit Gossip is probably the epicenter of the scene. That’s where the term is used the most. The curator of that group, Chris Dankland, lives in Houston.
WC: Has Texas had any effect on your writing?
NG: I think it’s difficult not to write from your own experiences. I live in Austin, and when I write I definitely incorporate what I hear people say and stories about my friends, stuff like that. But I think that one of the core things about Alt Lit is that it exists primarily on the Internet. It’s an Internet culture. And that’s really important to the community at large.
WC: So this is a movement not really tied to geography?
NG: Right. For example, there are plenty of people whose only means of putting writing in the world is via email. Like Peter BD, his whole thing is he sends an email to you where he writes a story about you with a bunch of weird made-up shit. And there are plenty of people who primarily write through Facebook and Tumblr.
WC: Do you think the independent publishing nature of Alt Lit gives it any advantage?
NG: It just depends on what your end goal is. If your goal is to communicate with other people, then you totally have an advantage because you can get your material out there faster and develop communications faster. If your goal is to become the poet laureate of the United States, then you’re fucked.
No Glykon recently published the sixth issue of his online Alt Lit zine, Reality Hands.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock—and perhaps even if you have—you’ve probabably heard the news that former Texas Observer managing editor Chris Tomlinson (now a columnist with the Houston Chronicle) has a new book, which officially published yesterday.
Tomlinson Hill: The Remarkable Story of Two Families Who Share the Tomlinson Name—One White, One Black (St. Martin’s Press) has been getting warm notices from Texas Monthly to NPR, and while the Observer‘s own review won’t be available for another week or so (check the forthcoming August issue), we wanted to jump the gun and let Observer friends and family know that Chris has some statewide book-launch events coming up.
How does one tell an unspeakable story? This question hovers like fog over Lacy M. Johnson’s The Other Side, a memoir about the author’s imprisonment and rape, in 2000, at the hands of a man she had once dated. Since then, Johnson has found happiness both professionally (she received her Ph.D. from the University of Houston and now works as director of academic initiatives at UH’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts) and personally (as a wife and mother), yet the crime—whose perpetrator escaped the American justice system by moving to Venezuela—has continued to haunt her. The Other Side is a book about an abusive relationship leading to a violent crime, yes, but more than that it’s about the difficulty and necessity of telling such a story instead of allowing others to tell it for you.
Johnson shows less interest in the awful facts at her memoir’s center than in the way she experienced those facts. She rarely addresses the rape directly, circling it at a distance, oftentimes even standing outside of her story to focus on objective-seeming materials—police reports, photographs, newspaper articles—only to then question their objectivity by delving into her own memories. (“It’s possible I’m not remembering right,” Johnson tells her therapist, who responds: “Is there any other way of remembering?”) This tension between fact and perception forms the book’s intellectual backbone, and though The Other Side begins as a true-crime story, it flowers into an investigation of memory.
Despite the subject matter, Johnson never wallows in bleakness. Her writing style is engaging and redemptive, a trick accomplished partly by virtue of Johnson’s voice—clear and direct, but with a breezy archness that belies her story’s dark core. Upon seeing her possessions in a Ziploc bag marked EVIDENCE, Johnson writes: “Nice to meet you, Evidence.” Elsewhere she exhibits both the touch of a poet (blood in her mouth becomes “the taste of a penny stolen from the kitchen jar”) and a novelist’s eye for character-fleshing detail (her mother addresses crises with Cool Ranch Doritos). As for the crime itself, Johnson breaks it up over a couple of different chapters, never asking the reader to experience the horror in a sustained way. The Other Side moves lithely from scene to scene, shuffling the chronology so readers remain aware that no matter how terrible events may seem, a happier life for Johnson lies ahead.
All of this adds up to a great book, one that isn’t ultimately about violence, but about a woman taking control of her own story after years of looking at it as if it were a reflection, something familiar yet distant, something she never quite accepted as her own.
“How is it possible,” Johnson asks, “to reclaim the body when it’s visible only in a mirror?” The Other Side is Johnson’s attempt to shatter that mirror—to reclaim a seemingly unspeakable story and, in so doing, to bring it to an end.
Open range cattle rancher, frontier law enforcer, illegal hide trader, Methodist circuit preacher and veteran of both the Texas-Indian Wars and the Civil War – Santiago Tafolla’s life was a wild journey spanning the quintessentially Texan iconography of the 19th century. The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University has recently acquired his hand-written memoirs, along with an assortment of related maps and photographs. The documents offer a rare glimpse into the Tejano experience of 19th century Texas, and will soon be available online.
“We don’t have a lot of Tejano materials,” says David Coleman, director of the Wittliff Collections. “Across the Southwest, the Mexican-American experience is significant. In Texas, though, [documents] tends to focus on the Texans. We hope that [the Tafolla papers] will serve as a real foundation piece to build on, representing a Tejano or Mexican-American experience. ”
Tafolla was born in 1837 in Santa Fe, which was then Mexican territory. His parents died when he was young, and in a Dickensian turn of events he was sent to live with a cruel older brother who treated him more or less as a mule. In 1848—the year of the U.S. takeover of Santa Fe—11-year-old Tafolla and a cousin ran away. They nearly starved to death in the mountains until a passing American caravan rescued them. Thus began Tafolla’s travels across the United States, during which he witnessed “a wedding reception at Mormon Town, Texas; skirmishes between rowdy recruits from St. Louis and a Black crew on a Mississippi steamboat; and the Sunday afternoon going-ons at the residences of foreign ministers in Washington, D.C.,” according to the introduction to the published memoirs. His brief stint in the Confederate army was cut short by the threats of his Anglo comrades to lynch the “greasers.” He and a few other Tejanos deserted their regiment and escaped to Mexico.
“This is the only known written account of a Mexican-American who served in the Civil War, and that’s dramatically significant,” Coleman says. After the war, Tafolla returned to Central Texas and traded livestock in the oft-romanticized early days of the Texas cattle industry. The journal ends with Tafolla’s swearing-in as justice of the peace in Bandera County in 1876—the year of the last great Comanche raid in the region. Tafolla died before he could complete the memoirs, which unfortunately leaves out his religious awakening and the subsequent 35 years he spent as a Methodist circuit preacher.
The manuscript was passed down through Tafolla’s descendants as a family heirloom. His grandson attempted to have a transcription published in the 1960s, but faced a lack of interest in early Mexican-American literature. It was finally published in 2009 as A Life Crossing Borders: Memoir of a Mexican-American Civil War Soldier, by Houston’s Arte Publico Press, in an edition edited by Santiago’s great-grandchildren, including Carmen Tafolla, the current poet laureate of San Antonio.
Wittliff archivists plan to digitize the manuscript for online access within the year. Because the pages are so fragile, the public will have limited access to the original documents.
The work is a large-scale camera obscura installation. A camera obscura is an optical device, predating photography, that uses an aperture and a darkened chamber to convert natural light into a two-dimensional image, which is typically projected onto a flat plane. In the case of “100 North Nevill Street” (the installation’s title is borrowed from the hosting Ice Plant gallery’s address), a 6-inch lens installed in one of the building’s walls casts an inverse image of the exterior landscape across the interior of the warehouse-like space. Because the image is a real-time projection of the external environment, ever-changing patterns of light and shadow, not to mention clouds and cars, keep the distorted image in constant motion.
“I hate to oversimplify what is a marvelous and complex artistic experience,” says Rob Weiner, associate director of the Chinati Foundation, “but you walk into the room, which has become a kind of camera, and you see an upside down image of the outside that fills the walls, floor and ceiling.
“Everybody has a completely different experience,” Weiner says. “You start looking at something that’s familiar in a very particular way. It makes it strange for a moment, even though it’s completely accurate. You’re looking at it in a different perspective. Like all art, it’s experience.”
Leonard’s West Texas presentation is the final installment of a worldwide series. In New York City, the artist received widespread acclaim for “945 Madison Avenue” at the 2014 Whitney Biennial. Leonard had previously exhibited camera obscura installations in Venice, Italy (2012), London (“Observation Point,” 2012), and Germany (“Available Light,” 2011). The current Marfa installation is the only location projecting primarily natural scenery.
The Chinati Foundation has an evolving relationship with Leonard, who first visited Marfa with a friend several years ago. Since then, Leonard has returned to Chinati to exhibit her photography, and in 2010 performed a spoken word piece called “This Is Where I Was” based on more than 1,000 collected postcards of Niagara Falls.
The Ice Plant is located on East Oak Street between North Nevill and Salarosa streets in Marfa. “100 North Nevill Street” is free and open to the public from noon to 2 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday, until the end of the year.