Don Quixote in Overalls
BY BETTY BRINK Balaam Gimble’s Gumption By Mike Nichols John M. Hardy Publishing Co. 300 pages, $23.95 ort Worth writer Mike Nichols, a story-teller in the best tradition of that threatened species, has written a damn fine, funny-as-all-get-out first novel. And that’s not just this reviewer’s considered opinion. Balaam Gimble’s Gumption was chosen this year by the Texas Institute of Letters to receive its John Bloom Humor Award (aka the Joe Bob Briggs Prize) for the Funniest Texas Book written in 2004. A well-deserved honor that’s especially satisfying since the venerable institute that’s been honoring native writers since 1936 didn’t find a book worthy of Joe Bob in 2003. Nichols has written a gentle satire, a morality play, a comic-tragedy rolled into one marvelous tale that will have you laughing out loud, tearing up at least once, and always cheering for the pure-at-heart (well, mostly), country-philosopher, deer-protector, part-time-handyman Balaam as he tries to show his friends and neighbors in the fictional small Texas town of Willoughby (just down the road from Waco) that money really can’t buy happiness—well, at least it can’t buy Balaam—and that change is not always good. The author, who wrote a humor column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in another life, lived near a small town much like Willoughby for four years where he wrote Balaam and several non-fiction books and once described himself as the “only unarmed person in Limestone County.” Last year, he moved back to his hometown, Fort Worth, where he has now finished another novel and has three in the works. “Balaam,” he has said, “is the most personal thing I will ever write.” The lessons he’s aiming to teach in the novel might seem to be wrapped in a couple of weary old clichés, but in Nichols’ able hands the method Balaam chooses to wake up the townsfolk and save them from themselves is as fresh and eccentric—and ultimately satisfying—as the odd-ball savior himself. I won’t give away the ending, but every Main Street preservationist who’s tried to fight off a Wal-Mart or a low-level nuke waste dump or any one of a multitude of evil empires that promise jobs and tax dollars in exchange for a town’s soul is going to identify with this Don Quixote in overalls—and wish they’d had the tools he used to make his point. In the real world, Balaam’s methods probably wouldn’t have kept the Wal-Mart out, but it sure would have brought some satisfaction to those who were trying to do just that. n a town so dead that the mayor describes it as a place where “you could lie down and take a nap in most streets… and never get run over,” bachelor Balaam’s 200-acre family homestead of “weeds and woods”—a shack and a pet deer—is suddenly being hailed as the town’s salvation after Balaam uncovers a cave on the property filled with a seemingly endless spring of health-rejuvenating mineral waters. At first the townspeople are happy to simply romp in the warm waters and sell the foul-tasting stuff in fruit jars to traveling sales folk and truck drivers. But when word begins to spread of the water’s wonder-working powers to heal everything from bad knees to psoriasis, the mayor, most of the townspeople, and a greedy out-of-town developer begin to salivate over the find, hoping to turn the dying Willoughby into Texas’ answer to Arkansas’ Hot Springs. Balaam, however, is happy with his lot. His life is defined by his love for a deer named Stilts, his work keeping the town’s widows’ washing machines and window units running, and his daily morning stroll over to the deer feeders set up by his mad-hunter neighbor. That’s where the lanky Balaam takes his morning pee (deer won’t come near human urine, readers are told) in his one-man war against the killing of the gentle creatures. Balaam fights temptation—the millions offered for his property—and comically botched terrorism, as the developer’s Keystone Cops scare tactics aimed at running him off his property backfire. His most daunting challenge comes from trying to “get the gumption” to say “no” to his fellow citizens, who make no secret of their conviction that if Balaam doesn’t sell he will have betrayed them all. A couple of dueling widows race to see who can get the town’s first “bed and breakfast” opened for the influx of the tourists sure to come. The owner of the two-teller bank envisions having enough depositors to finally be able to get an ATM machine. The mayor dreams of traffic congestion so great that he can finally replace the town’s flashing red light with a “full, four-way, three-color traffic signal.” And just about everyone in the town has become an instant expert on real estate values. The most refreshing thing about this tale of greed and the unlikely tilter at windmills who fights it—outside of the fact that the violence is minimal and the sex is funny—is Nichols’ handling of the quirky small-town characters who pepper the pages of this book. He has given his characters individuality and humanity. In a lesser writer’s hands, they would have become simply silly, cartoonish stereotypes. As nutty and money-hungry as most of them are, Nichols imbues them with their own uniqueness and warmth. He preserves their dignity even as we laugh at their worst moments. He develops these townsfolk with such a loving brush that this reader was left caring for them all (with the exception of the deer hunter, the developer, and his oafish hit-man) even as I was pained by their frailties. But their frailties, of course, are our own—along with their triumphs, their joys, and their falls from grace. In one sense, reading Balaam Gimble’s Gumption is like looking into a mirror. Until we’re approached by the developer with checkbook in hand, most of us, if we’re honest, have no idea what our price might be. As Pogo once taught us, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Mike Nichols has that rare gift that can make us at least laugh about it. Betty Brink is a writer in Fort Worth.