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Literary Warrior

by Published on
photo by Earl Nottingham

Jan Reid has been pondering masculinity, violence and Texas most of his life. No one who has a phobia of fighting should engage the catalog of Reid’s Texas Monthly articles, which he’s been writing since the early ’70s. With titles like “Kid’s Glove,” “Scarred,” “The Warrior’s Bride,” “To Hell and Back” and “The Runaway Scrape,” Reid leaves himself so exposed and has such a clear, inviting style that when the fists emerge, you almost feel sorry that Reid has to introduce them. He’s often the one at the receiving end of the violence.

If you read those articles and then meet Reid for the first time, you might assume that the thorny, potent subjects he keeps circling are the same ones that have damaged him. At 65, his back arches over a cane, and he speaks with a strained voice. In 1996, Reid flew to Mexico City with some fellow Monthly writers to see Jesús Chávez fight. Reid was shot and left for dead. In 2002, he published his well-reviewed book about the experience, The Bullet Meant for Me.

Since 1987 Reid has been working on a novel, Comanche Sundown, about the Comanche warrior Quanah Parker and Bose Ikard, a freed slave and Texas cowboy who eventually worked for Panhandle rancher Charles Goodnight. Parker and Ikard are enemies at the novel’s opening, although as Texas and the West change in the second half of the 19th century, so do opportunities for their lives to intersect. Comanche Sundown is a thrilling read. Though it’s a touchy word in literary criticism, the novel feels pure. It’s not pure because it’s airy or idea-oriented; it’s pure because Reid’s characters feel like living people.

It’s the best writing Reid has ever done, and that’s saying a lot. Yet the novel has been almost ignored since it was published last fall. The Dallas Morning News ran a rave review in December by Jeff Guinn, who called the novel “addictive” and says Reid writes with “a master’s eye for small details and believable dialogue.” Guinn places Reid and Comanche Sundown in the same camp as Larry McMurtry and Lonesome Dove. Texas Monthly published a one-sentence blurb about the book last October. That’s about it.

“It’s been a slow rollout,” Reid says.

It’s not uncommon to hear about authors spending years on a book, but 23 years is notable. “I started a few times, then gave up on it several times,” Reid says. He started writing it in a hotel in Ecuador, where he was on assignment for Texas Monthly. He’d steal a little time between assignments to work on the novel. Parker and Ikard were always at the heart of the story, but everything else changed during the writing. Reid would get lost in the story—not caught up in a dreamy way, but literally lost. “OK, I’m here, now where is it going?” he’d ask himself. “One of the things that’s drawn me back to writing fiction is that in fiction, things happen that you didn’t know were going to happen.”

At one point—he doesn’t remember when—Reid saw how to finish the book. “I took it out and had one of those flashes of how to finish it, and it wouldn’t take 15 more years and 2,000 more pages,” he says. When his agent, David McCormick, who used to be an editor at Texas Monthly and The New Yorker, sent the manuscript to editors, Reid says they complimented the manuscript but worried whether anyone outside of Texas would buy the novel. Some said they chose not to publish it because “no one’s heard of Quanah Parker.”

When I floated the idea to Reid that it demanded unusual discipline and a confident vision to spend 23 years on a novel, all he said was, “I’d like to think that.” Reid isn’t the most garrulous man, maybe because he’s trained himself to be a more perceptive observer and listener than speaker. 

There are a few obvious reasons Comanche Sundown hasn’t received the attention it deserves. Reid is better known as a journalist than as a novelist. The novel is published by TCU Press, which doesn’t have the publicity power or ad budget of a larger house, though it routinely acquires good books. Comanche Sundown is historical fiction, which runs the risk of attracting only readers interested in the period. And 2010 was the year of Comanche overload in Texas books, with Reid’s novel and S.C. Gwynne’s best-selling history of the Comanches, Empire of the Summer Moon.

It doesn’t help that Reid seems incapable of calling attention to himself. Writers are asked, however obliquely, to sell themselves, not just their books. He’s now writing a biography of his friend Ann Richards for the University of Texas Press that’s slated for publication in 2012. For the first time in a while, he doesn’t know what he’s writing after that. “There’s a novel I’d like to finish,” he says, “but who knows if I’ll get to it.” 

 

Clay Smith is the literary director of the Texas Book Festival.