Texas Literary Outlaws: Six Writers in the Sixties and Beyond
Steven L. Davis’s compelling account of the lives and works of Billie Lee Brammer, Gary Cartwright, Peter Gent, Dan Jenkins, Larry L. King, and Edwin (Bud) Shrake takes us back to a day when Dallas sportswriters ran around with a stripper who worked for Jack Ruby; when a wild man from West Texas became the literary toast of New York and Washington; when a subversive football player stood up to the Dallas Cowboys management and wrote a memorable novel about it; when a wise guy from Fort Worth transformed American sports writing in the pages of Sports Illustrated and produced a group of signature comic novels that defined sexual and political incorrectness; and when Texas’ most lyrical prose writer partied himself to death after failing to live up to his incomparable solo novel.
The Dallas sportswriters were Bud Shrake and Gary Cartwright. The wild man was Larry L. King, of Putnam, Texas. The football player turned writer was Dallas tight end Pete Gent. The Sports Illustrated star was Dan Jenkins. And it was Bill Brammer who wrote The Gay Place and then was never able to fulfill the huge expectations the book created. (The striptease artist was a blonde named Jada, who used to drive around Dallas in her gold Cadillac wearing high heels, a mink coat, and nothing else.)
At 41, Steve Davis is awfully young to be the recording angel for this particular group of literary hellraisers, five of whom were born between 1929 and 1934. But it’s this chronological distance that enables him to concentrate on the work and free himself of the myth. His other natural advantage as a chronicler is his position as assistant curator of the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State in San Marcos, where resides a treasure trove of literary archives donated by Cartwright, King, Shrake, and the Brammer family.
The form of the book is group biography. One character is introduced, then another, then a third—soon, friendships form and parallel careers begin. The oldest friendship is that of Dan Jenkins and Bud Shrake, who attended Fort Worth’s Paschal High School in the forties, when Fort Worth was a little city with cafes that knew how to fry a steak just right, a busy nightlife full of hepcats, and a tight power structure that just hated Dallas. After graduating from TCU both ended up working in the truly crummy offices occupied by the Fort Worth Press, an afternoon paper whose morning deadline was perfect for writers who caroused all night and then stopped by the office. Jenkins was a charmer, Shrake a bit laconic, and both benefited from the tutelage of sports editor Blackie Sherrod, who taught his charges to compose memorable leads and gave them S.J. Perelman and Mark Twain to read. The paper appeared to be the bottom link in the Scripps-Howard chain. It was so cheaply run that the writers could only get a new pencil by turning in the stub of an old one, yet the soot-filled newsroom, full of strange characters who occupied the fringes of Texas journalism, appealed to the middle-class Paschal boys.
In 1956, a new reporter arrived—Gary Cartwright. Soon he and Shrake became friends and began making the rounds of Fort Worth’s gangland slayings, nightclubs, and high school football games. Davis points out that the low-circulation Press created the perfect environment for what would later be called the New Journalism.
Under Sherrod’s innovative example, the reporters were much more interested in asking why, instead of the conventional who, what, where, and when. “We survived on the assumption that no one read our paper anyhow,” Cartwright told Davis: “It is the same feeling you get on a college newspaper or on mind-expanding drugs. There are no shackles on the imagination; there is no retreat, only attack.”
Meanwhile, down in Austin, Bill Brammer had become managing editor of a new liberal political paper, The Texas Observer. It was an odd fit at best between the politically committed editor, Ronnie Dugger, and Billie Lee, whose taste ran to the offbeat, such as the witty report he filed from Marfa, where the movie Giant was being filmed. Brammer’s real differences with the idealistic fortnightly were made clear when he and his wife Nadine accepted jobs as staffers for the big enchilada of Texas politics, Lyndon Johnson. At nights and in his spare time, Brammer was working on his political novel set in Austin, whose lead character is a Johnsonian Texas Governor named Arthur “Goddam” Fenstemaker, who alternately curses like a sailor and quotes Bible verses.
In Washington Brammer quickly crossed paths with an outgoing congressional aide from Texas, Larry L. King. The two hit it off, and soon Brammer was reading him chapters of The Gay Place as quickly as he finished them. The story of King’s career is clearly one of Davis’s favorites and for good reason: It’s an astonishing adventure in self-creation. Compared to the others, King seems to belong to an earlier era. His territory was the hardscrabble dirt farm and oil patch country of Callahan County, deep in West Texas. Having a friend like the precocious and charming Brammer, who was turning out a fine book, only increased his own determination to write fiction.
Long delayed, modern fiction arrived in Texas in 1961 with the publication of The Gay Place, and Larry McMurtry’s Horseman, Pass By. The Gay Place, really a collection of three novellas, reminded many of Brammer’s literary hero F. Scott Fitzgerald, in its lyrical language and insight into fallible human nature. The book made Billie Lee a reluctant celebrity in Austin.
By this time, Blackie Sherrod had taken the head sportswriting job at the Dallas Times-Herald, and was quickly followed by his pupils Jenkins, Shrake, and Cartwright. Soon Jenkins’ dream of working for Sports Illustrated materialized. He moved to New York, where his panache and magazine expense account made him a fixture on the high-end bar and restaurant scene. Cartwright began distinguishing himself as a sportswriter with a unique Texas voice. He and Shrake had moved to the higher circulation Dallas Morning News, and Cartwright covered the Dallas Cowboys, a plum assignment. He became famous with one particular lead paragraph after Dallas quarterback Don Meredith snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by throwing an interception in the waning seconds of a game. Cartwright’s words, which were picked up all over the country, harkened back to Grantland Rice’s description of a Notre Dame backfield: “Outlined against a gray November sky, the Four Horsemen rode again: Pestilence, Death, Famine, and Meredith.”
Shrake and Cartwright quickly became friends with the Cowboys’ leading rebel, a former basketball player from Michigan named Pete Gent, a talented player who endured injury after injury. His attitude is captured by Davis, who reports that, after seeing a Dallas rookie reading the team’s thick play book, Gent commented, “Don’t bother reading it, kid. Everybody gets killed in the end.” Meanwhile, partying took on a harder edge; sportswriters had access to the same painkillers and speed that kept the football players operational.
Davis’s eerie description of the day of Kennedy’s assassination is worth the price of Texas Literary Outlaws. It starts with Jack Ruby waiting for Shrake at his Dallas Morning News desk just a few hours before the Kennedy motorcade drove through town. During the procession, Cartwright and Shrake were on the front row when Kennedy’s car passed by. Nine years later Shrake published Strange Peaches, a fine novel set in Dallas during the assassination.
But as Davis points out, the writer most affected by the assassination was not in Dallas that day. Larry L. King’s trip from Washington had been cancelled. In 1963 King was doing just fine, supporting his family as a congressional aide—but he still harbored a desire to write. The assassination jolted him into thoughts of mortality and lost ambition, and he quickly quit his job, planning to make it as a freelance writer and novelist. By this time, he had a contract for an uncompleted novel and some acquaintances in the newspaper and magazine world on the East Coast. Other major changes followed—he separated from his wife and children and grew a beard befitting an Old Testament prophet. He grew so desperate for money that he took a day labor job installing seats in a football stadium with men half his age. His fortune turned when he met Willie Morris, Brammer’s friend from the Observer days, who was now at Harper’s. Morris took an immediate liking to King, a mesmerizing storyteller who was filled with literary ambition. It did not take long for King to establish a following at Harper’s with pieces such as “Requiem for a West Texas Town,” and one of the best treatments of Lyndon Johnson ever put on paper, “My Hero LBJ.”
His long-tinkered-with novel, The One-Eyed Man, brought him a $10,000 check from the Literary Guild before it was published in June 1966. As it turned out, the pre-publication bonus was the high point of the book’s reception. Most critics then viewed it as Davis does now—too eager to please and very much in debt to Brammer’s The Gay Place and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men.
1968 was a big year for Cartwright, Shrake, and King—each of them had a book important to them published. Cartwright’s novel, The Hundred Yard War, was a disappointment, even to the author himself. Davis compares it to King’s The One-Eyed Man in that it tried to cram in too much and was overwritten. Bud Shrake, however, took everyone by surprise with his very fine western novel, Blessed McGill, set in Texas and New Mexico soon after the Civil War. Davis rightly judges McGill as one of the finest American novels written about the Southwest, but the timing for the novel was unfortunate:
The year 1968 was not a good time for a sportswriter from Texas to publish a historical novel about a rough-hewn frontiersman. Lyndon Johnson had become an object of widespread loathing, and there was little interest in historical fiction as America descended into chaos after the murders of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy.
King’s book was a collection of pieces from Harper’s, and it too was affected by current events. The original title, My Hero LBJ and Other Dirty Stories, was truncated to …And Other Dirty Stories after Johnson announced that he would not run for re-election. The book, however, was very well received by the national media and put King on the map as a journalist to watch. Davis includes a haunting photograph of King’s book-signing party at Austin’s Scholz Beer Garten in October 1968. It shows King surrounded by well-wishers and a stack of his books. Behind him is his mentor Bill Brammer, who had little work of any kind published throughout the ’60s.
During the next five years, King solidified his position as a leading journalist with a national forum. His personal life was complicated by the illness of his second wife, Rosemarie. Willie Morris nominated King to be a Neiman Fellow at Harvard during the 1969-70 academic year—an opportunity to soak up some education and relax. King being King, he led the other Fellows in anti-war activities and memorably brought Norman Mailer and William Styron to the campus. His Harper’s article, “Blowing My Mind at Harvard,” traced the distance he had traveled since he educated himself reading borrowed books in West Texas. Davis’s account of how King came to write “Confessions of a White Racist,” originally for Harper’s, reminds the reader of how laceratingly honest he could be about himself and his origins. Expanded into a book in 1971, King’s exploration of his racial evolution was a runner-up for that year’s National Book Award.
Dan Jenkins published his football novel, Semi-Tough, in 1972. It instantly became a bestseller, sold to a film company, and made Jenkins even more money as a paperback. But Davis is clearly troubled by Jenkins’ comic novels, which he describes as progressively more offensive in their sexist and racist humor. In 1973 Pete Gent wrote a very different football novel, North Dallas Forty, a deeply subversive book about the business of football and the city of Dallas, written from the standpoint of one of the expendable employees of the establishment. (Gent’s place in Outlaws can be questioned, however. Other than writing a good novel about football in Dallas, he shares little with the other five protagonists.)
At this point, the stories become more familiar. After a bit of trial and error, Gary Cartwright becomes a star at the new Austin magazine, Texas Monthly. Bud Shrake expands his storytelling into writing screenplays and television scripts, leading him to adventures with the likes of Dennis Hopper in remotest Mexico. Bill Brammer continues his sad decline, and was seen in his last years selling programs at a Willie Nelson picnic. He died in February 1978 of a methamphetamine overdose. Larry L. King recovers from the death of Rosemarie and the firing of Willie Morris from Harper’s. One of his throw-away pieces, “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” becomes a Broadway musical hit. He buys a fine home in Washington and pronounces himself “about two-thirds rich.” After some serious drug-related problems, Gent retreats to Michigan; and Jenkins finally leaves Sports Illustrated, happy to write for golf magazines. He also left most of his friends politically and was seen at the first Bush White House throwing horseshoes with Poppy.
In the ’90s, Shrake became about two-thirds rich himself when he wrote the series of Harvey Penick golf philosophy books. In 2000 he published a Texas historical novel, The Borderland, and last year had a new play produced in London. Cartwright still shows up in the pages of Texas Monthly, reminding everyone of what great chops he has. And Larry L. King, a victim of identity theft by the suspendered television host, is always hard at work and will be down from Washington this fall to be honored at the Texas Book Festival. None of these six have had what might be called a conventional literary career, but Davis makes a convincing case for their place in creating an ironic, tough-edged school of Texas writing, and a legacy of world-class hijinks and good times.
Dick Holland was curator of the Southwestern Writers Collection from 1987 to 1997. This year he taught an honors class at UT-Austin titled “Images of Texas in Literature, Art, Film, and Music.”