Magazine Writer

Magazine Writer

BY DAVE HICKEY

To borrow a phrase from Dave Hickey, the late Grover Lewis was “the most stone wonderful writer that nobody ever heard of and blind as a cave bat in the bargain.” Born in San Antonio in 1934, Lewis survived a childhood marked by unbelievable violence. He specialized in a kind of immersion reportage that came to be known as the New Journalism (“Victorian reportage with neon punctuation,” according to Hickey. “Dickens and Stevenson and DeQuincey in meaner streets with drugs.”) Splendor in the Short Grass: The Grover Lewis Reader, edited by Jan Reid and W.K. Stratton (University of Texas Press, 2005) introduces Lewis to a new generation of readers. The Observer is pleased to publish two excerpts, “Magazine Writer,” by Dave Hickey, re-printed here with kind permission of the author, and “Goodbye If You Call That Gone,” (Afterword, page 28) by Grover Lewis. ince my old pal Grover Lewis no longer walks among us, let me begin by saying that, as a physical creature, by the standards of the culture, Grover was nobody’s dream date. But he had an air about him, something likeable and complicated. He had this lanky Texas stance, a big mouth with a big smile, and attired as he usually was, in boots, jeans, and some goofy forties shirt, faintly squiffed and glaring at you through those thick Coke-bottle glasses, he was a caricaturist’s delight: all eyes, mouth, angles, sweetness, and ferocious intelligence. Moreover, he was a Southern boy to the end. He believed in truth and justice, and through all the years of dope and whiskey, Deadheads and deadlines, movie stars and rented cars, he remained an alumnus of that old school. Women always called my attention to Grover’s “courtly manner”—alluding to his charm even. But to me, he was always Prewitt in From Here to Eternity, a clenched fist in a frail package—prince and pauper in equal parts—always passing some outrageous, absolute judgment on your life and work, while appealing to your sympathy by bumping into a chair. Which is pretty much my definition of “exasperating”—that uncanny ability to break your heart while making you smile—so you never knew whether to thank Grover or forgive him for his impertinence. In my own case, since we were old and permanent friends (and Texas boys, too, cagey with mutual respect), I usually settled for neither. Grover was, after all, the most stone wonderful writer that nobody ever heard of and blind as a cave bat in the bargain. He had been since birth, so he had to wear those wonky glasses. So, when he really ticked me off, I comforted myself with imagining Grover and his old running mate, Larry McMurtry, back at North Texas State in the fifties, as campus pariahs: two skinny, four-eyed geeks in goofy forties shirts scuttling along the sidewalk head to head, toting copies of The Evergreen Review and plotting their mutual apotheosis—in the aftermath of which they would both be famous authors, claiming any female who fell within their view. The pleasure I took in this imagined tableau of pathetic geekdom was considerably enhanced by the improbable fact that both Larry and Grover, each in his own way, actually achieved their apotheosis (and its consequent surfeit of feminine companionship)—so rapidly, in fact, that by the time I met them in the early 1960s they were no longer geeks. They were “promising Texas writers.” McMurtry had published his first novel, Horseman, Pass By. It was soon to be made into a movie called Hud, and, in the interim, he was teaching creative writing at TCU, while resisting attempts to ban Horseman from the university library. Grover had been booted out of grad school for publishing “communist pornography” in a state-funded journal and had begun publishing essays in national magazines. He had also written a bleak, feral book of poems called I’ll Be There in the Morning, If I Live and could be found reading from it in coffeehouses and other fugitive venues. So, far from being geeks, when I met them, Grover and Larry were on their way, marking the path I fully intended to follow out of town. By the early 1970s, McMurtry was producing novels at a steady clip and living like a fugitive out on the highway. Grover and I had seen the blessed vision—Texas in the rearview mirror. We were ensconced on opposite ends of the country practicing something called “New Journalism,” which, in fact, was nothing more than Victorian reportage with neon punctuation—Dickens and Stevenson and DeQuincey in meaner streets with stronger drugs. Grover was in San Francisco working for Rolling Stone, writing landmark stories about movies and rock-and-roll—inventing pop genres like “the location story” and “the tour story.” I was in New York, writing about art for Art in America and about rock-and-roll for The Village Voice. As a consequence, our paths began crossing in airports and bars, in press trailers and at country music festivals. We forged a friendship based on our mutual distaste for bar-ditch Texas and on our fatal love for the life we found ourselves leading. Both of us had read enough books and seen enough highway to know what a lovely moment it was. We had grown up with the myth of the open range, with that unreflective, visceral cowboy hatred for fences, and, just for that moment, the fences were down. The institutions that strung them were in disgrace, and the borders were open: the president was a crook; the generals were losers; corporate culture was in disarray; and the universities were irrelevant. So there was a sense of making it up as you went along, with new rules in a new place, where, if you wished, you could bring your Deleuze and your Stratocaster, too. And there was plenty of sleazy fame to go around—except that, back then, it was still the colossal joke that Warhol intended it to be, still marketing and not yet a religion. You could still write a tight, astringent literary piece about a rock-and-roll band or a pop mogul or a movie set, or even an evangelist, and it would pass for hype—the assumption being that people were cool, and everybody was in on the joke. So we wrote as well and as wittily as we could; then, with what we thought of as profligate generosity, we sailed our pieces out, like paper airplanes, into the woozy, ephemeral ozone of Pop America—feeling ourselves part of this vast conspiracy of coolness that extended all the way from Keith Richards, in extremis somewhere in France, to the vast republic of scruffy kids flipping albums in minimalls across the heartland. The sustained ironies of this new world distressed utopians and conservatives alike, but it was very Victorian, really. As Grover put it, we wrote about cottage industries that bubbled up out of the rookeries. We did pieces about people doing pieces, out there in the savanna between the corporate jungle and the ivory tower. Ultimately, however, the fences would go back up, and as the eighties progressed, that space would evaporate. Suddenly, it was all Demi Moore and no more demimonde. Somehow, in a twinkling, “celebrity” had become a class in America, not an aberration, and celebrities themselves were no longer cool people, no longer edge-walkers like Ray Davies and Dennis Hopper, amazed and bemused by their new ludic status. Suddenly, they were hopeless, helpless dweebs, nervous and afraid of losing what they knew they didn’t deserve; and the people who worked for them in the celebrity game (who used to lay out lines for us and let us borrow the limo) ceased to be cool, as well. More and more, Grover and I found ourselves dealing with hysterical, defensive bureaucrats—guardians of the inner temple—who wanted to write our stories for us. The days of midnight rides with the Allman Brothers were over. Opportunities to write hip stories about pop subjects disappeared. Pop stories about hip subjects were the vogue, and it was no fun anymore. As I told Grover at the time, “Either we got old, or the president did.” Probably it was both, but it hit Grover hard. He loved what he did and the status associated with it. And he hated where he came from. By the time he was ten, Grover explained, he had known enough hard times and chaos to last the entire population of Newport Beach into the next century. He hadn’t liked it then and he didn’t like it now. But he remained a Southern boy, stubborn as red dirt, bound and determined to stick to his last, lost cause or not, and to believe forever in that brand of truth and justice that had first set him free. And he was a magazine writer. His job was to hammer the detritus of fugitive cultural encounters into elegant sentences, lapidary paragraphs, and knowable truth; and, in truth, the loveliness and lucidity of Grover’s writing always rose to the triviality of the occasion. His burden was to suffer that chronic, Promethean anguish known only to slow writers with short deadlines and absolute standards, and he had lived with that. Whatever it cost Flaubert to conjure up le mot juste for Madame Bovary’s trousseau, Grover paid comparable prices to evoke the butch camaraderie on the location of some lamentable movie, to capture the joy and desperation of some unremembered rock concert in a gym in southeastern New Mexico, to dramatize the antic absurdity of lunch with Paul Newman at the Pump Room. He accepted that discipline and bowed to it, soothing the anguish with whiskey, amphetamines, and carloads of cigarettes. But the work dried up anyway. In Grover’s view, this was because editors, at present, were either corporate swine or academic twits and he, Grover Lewis, had his fucking standards. I suggested that Marie Antoinette had her fucking standards, too, but to no avail. So there were several years in the eighties when, to put it mildly, Grover was a very grumpy dude, prowling like a blind lynx around the apartment in Santa Monica where he and his wife Rae had finally come to rest. I would drop by and find him reading ten books, one page at a time, making encyclopedic tapes of all his favorite songs, fulminating against things in general and writing at a pace that was stately even by Grover’s standards. It was not a good time, but finally, with nothing much to look forward to, Grover began looking back, tentatively at first, but then with a longer, stronger gaze at his final, terrible treasure, that brutal world of Texas white-trash geekdom from whence he sprang—at the redneck tribes of sharecroppers, well-diggers, religious maniacs, and petty thugs from whose blunt ignorance he had struggled so mightily to liberate himself. Opening up those raw memories gave him nightmares for a while, but even so, in 1992, he accepted the assignment to return to Texas and write a piece for Texas Monthly about Oak Cliff, the working-class suburb of Dallas where he spent the best part of a childhood that, in truth, had no best part at all. “Farewell to Cracker Eden” turned out to be a hard and beautiful piece of writing, and Grover was heartened by its reception. So, finally, in his most Faulknerian manner, he “resolved to track the black beast to its lair.” He wrote a proposal for an autobiographical book about those years. It was to be called Goodbye If You Call That Gone, and it began like this: History and legend bind us to the past, along with an unquenchable memory. In the spring of 1943, my parents—Grover Lewis, a truck driver, and Opal Bailey Lewis, a hotel waitress—shot each other to death with a pawnshop pistol. For almost a year, Big Grover had stalked my mother, my four-year-old sister, and me across backwater Texas, resisting Opal’s decision to divorce him. When she finally did, and when he finally cornered her and pulled the trigger as he’d promised to do, she seized the gun and killed him, too. To no one’s surprise but his own, Grover got a contract to write this book, his first, for real money. About a month after that, Grover and I had a long conversation about the book. By this time he was fully aware of the ironies that swirled around the project. It was not a story he was born to write, he said: he had already written that in a thousand magazines with the shelf life of milk. It was, however, the book he had to write because he was born where and when he was, and to whom. And he planned to write it with a vengeance because, at one level, he had been “Lonesome Doved,” as he called it, referring to the experience of his friend McMurtry, who after twenty years of writing first-rate novels about living Americans in the contemporary moment, had been rewarded finally for a mythic novel based on an old screenplay about archetypal cowboys. So Grover had a little litany that he had clearly worked up with me in mind: “They will admire you for writing about the present, oh yeah. But they will love you for writing about the past. They will praise you for writing about housewives and showgirls, bookworms and businessmen. But they will pay you for cowboys and rednecks. They will admire you for writing about the world before your eyes. But they will adore you for spilling your guts. And somehow,” he said, “I’ll subvert that crap and still write this book.” Bam! He hit the table with his hand. It was the only violent gesture I ever saw him make. I was heartened by it. But there was more to it than that, because in essence, by writing this book, Grover was dismantling the engine that drove the words that wrote it. He knew, and I knew too, that by writing the story of his parents, he was handing every armchair psychologist we knew a false key to his heart, because, clearly, the crazy, loving, violent figure of Big Grover flickered behind half the people he had written about, behind all the bad guys, roughnecks, and broken poets, behind Robert Mitchum, Duane Allman, Lee Marvin, Lash LaRue, Art Pepper, John Huston, and Sam Peckinpah, and Grover knew it. “I can see it now, of course,” he said, “how I would want to talk to somebody who was like Big Grover, who was bad and good, sweet and violent. How I would want to speculate on how he might have survived, done well, and been redeemed. That’s a reasonable interest, I think, but it doesn’t explain anything. That was just the assignment, you know, and I’m too good a reporter to let the assignment distort the story. I always got the story that was there. From all these people. The only difference Big Grover made, I think, was that I was really interested in those guys and predisposed to forgive them for their rough edges. That made better stories, I think.” It would have made Grover’s book a better book, too, I think, but about two months after we spoke, Grover hurt his back moving something on his desk. He went to the doctor with it and was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. He was immediately thrust into chemotherapy, which scalded his throat, so we never spoke again. He died six weeks later and was buried in Kanarraville, Utah, Rae Lewis’s hometown, in a little Mormon cemetery in a high mountain meadow on a day full of wind and scudding clouds, hard ra
n, and banners of angled suns
ine. A small group of us stood in the mud around the grave, hunched against the rain and blinking in the shafts of dazzled sunlight. A girl in a country dress played an Irish melody on the fiddle. It was so damn cinematic I could barely stand it. All it needed was Beau Bridges and a commissary truck, so, to distract myself from the proliferation of easy ironies, I thought about the fragment I had read of Goodbye If You Call That Gone. About these lines: “The fatal events took place in my hometown of San Antonio when I was eight. By then I had experienced first hand such a numbing amount and so many varieties of violence that I was left with a choice between an invitation to death and the will to live.” Grover, of course, being Grover, chose both.

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