A Well-Known Gun

Close Calls: Jan Reid’s Texas

Consider the freelancer. To the aspiring writer, the word conjures up a fearless paladin of journalism, bloodied but unbound, dispatching dragons (or chimeras, or something else fictional and bad) right and left, armed only with the truth on his tongue, an eye for detail, and the prospect of being reimbursed for expenses.

It’s so much snappier than panderer, or mendicant, or hack–all of which describe various aspects of the freelance writer’s calling in the real world. The young J-school grad may dream of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, but you can’t commit journalism in a vacuum. If you’re a freelancer, you do it on somebody else’s dime, which means that, whatever your own unwavering commitment to the truth, whoever signs the check gets to say what the story is and how it gets told. It’s true that a good editor can improve even the best writer’s work, but a bad one can lay waste to Paradise Lost and still make his lunch date. And unlike salaried staff writers, the freelancer can’t plead for more time to work on a story without delaying his own payday. He takes the best available shot and moves on, stealing wistful glances over his shoulder. No wonder most of them would rather eat their own articles page by page than have to read them again once they’re in print.

So the publication of Close Calls, a selection of Jan Reid’s magazine pieces from the past quarter century, required a certain amount of chutzpah on someone’s part. It’s a gamble: the material may be good enough to stick between perfume swatches in a soon-to-be-discarded magazine, but is it worth sandwiching between hard covers for the ages? And will anybody buy it? It’s the publishing equivalent of re-releasing a made-for-TV movie on the arthouse circuit. Not unprecedented, but risky.

Who is this man, Jan Reid, who inspires such confidence in the publishing world? In a winning if slightly disjointed introduction, Reid traces his own development as a writer, an account which offers some insight into his own literary priorities: he recalls throwing a Henry James novel across the room upon encountering the ladylike interjection “Oh! Oh! Oh!” (As someone who’s often reacted the same way and assumed that the fault lay with the reader and not the writer, I felt both empowered and embarrassed by this account.) But he distances himself from the New Journalism at the other end of the literary spectrum, as embodied by Tom Wolfe: “The emphasis was on snappy dialogue, scene-by-scene construction, and brash inventiveness–Wolfe specialized in sound effects.” Reid’s role models were Texas writers like John Graves and Larry McMurtry, whose writing, however stylized, was grounded in language that might actually have been spoken by human beings at some point.

Though first published in the pages of the Observer (albeit as a poet), Reid found his voice as a journalist in the pages of Texas Monthly, where all but one of the pieces in this collection first appeared. He goes out of his way to acknowledge his debt to the magazine and the people who work there, but the prickly independence of the professional freelancer is never far from the surface. He can’t refrain from pointing out that he was let go only a few months after finally being hired as a staffer, and his description of the magazine is something short of a big wet kiss: “A journal that started out rattling the establishment has become the establishment, and like a cat now it often sits preening, adoring its place in the world.” Yeah, but we’re all still friends, right? (Full disclosure: I worked at Texas Monthly for a time and still have friends there. Or at least I did at the beginning of this paragraph.)

In the early years, though, Reid and Texas Monthly were made for one another. A sort of utility infielder, he helped to define the magazine’s signature style of literate, personally engaged journalism, covering subjects as disparate as rabid coyotes, Roger Staubach, Ma Ferguson, Astroturf, and the open container law, in addition to a wagonload of book reviews. Judging from Close Calls, he appears to have developed a formula: Open story with lively face-to-face encounter, pull back for big-picture historical perspective, then return to focus on the human element, now more deeply defined by the background material. Which is not to say that Reid’s writing is predictable or uncreative. His style works because it plays to his strengths as a writer. Like the most popular professor on campus, he’s great at distilling extensive research into its catchiest components. (Did you know that the Kickapoo once attacked Detroit? I didn’t.) His mastery of nature writing is rooted in almost obsessive attention to detail; even descriptions tossed off in passing give you the impression that Reid has flown over and burrowed under every piece of land he writes about, as in his description of the Devil’s River (from “Sympathy for the Devil’s,” 1994):

Depending on the depth of the bed’s layered rock shelves, the water color ranged from emerald to almost pink. Startled deer galloped in the shallows, hooves popping on the stone…. I saw showy glints of kingfishers, tanagers, hooded orioles, and a painted bunting. Above the trees towered limestone cliffs stained gray with manganite and festooned with desert vegetation: tasajillo cactus with pretty red berries and nasty barbed spines, and ocotillo, the strange thorned plant whose spindly branches sprout scarlet blossoms often but leaf out only when it rains.

But he also has a screenwriter’s ear for capturing (presumably real) dialogue, as in this exchange between cop and perp (from “Out of Action,” 1984):

“How much time did you do down there?” asked Cozby, referring to the joint.

“Eight and a half years. Didn’t get in no trouble, either.”

“You did eight and a half? My God. What was the original sentence?” It’s a kind of shoptalk. They do have a certain bond.

The man twisted his shackled hands and said matter-of-factly: “Thirty-five years.”

Cozby whistled. “Mercy. What for?”

“Aggravated robbery.”

Cozby slid me a triumphant glance.

“Actually,” the prisoner reminisced, “it was my money, you see. I took it out on loan, and this other dude collected it for me, then wouldn’t give it back. So I commenced to pistol-whipping the dude. And on reflection, I took all his money.”

Quentin Tarantino lies in bed looking at the ceiling all day long trying to think of this stuff.

To my way of thinking, Dallas cop Dennis Cozby, the subject of two pieces in the book, is a less than sympathetic character. In fact, he comes off as something of an asshole. But the same piece of writing that convinced me of this (“The Beat”) also got Reid exclusive access to Cozby, when the officer some years later shot and killed an unarmed black man in Dallas, bringing the city to the brink of a race riot (“Out of Action,” excerpted above). In other words, Cozby thought enough of Reid’s profile to talk to him when he wouldn’t talk to anyone else in the press. This points to another of Reid’s strengths. Though he’s as observant a reporter as Tom Wolfe, his sharp portraits are softened with a generous dose of empathy, a quality conspicuously absent from Wolfe’s writing. Here’s Reid on New Year’s Eve in East Dallas: “The same Friday-night regulars had come back to their favorite night spots to see the new year in. They’d dressed up more and paid a higher cover charge for the cheap champagne and party hats and the privilege of getting drunk and sad together.”

Given the fact that this is a collection of writing performed under deadline, a few false steps aren’t surprising. In some pieces, transitions from topic to topic seem obscure, and there are lapses into cuteness and contrivance. “My ouchy sacrum was batted like a Ping-Pong ball,” he writes, describing a mule ride. (And I’ve got a boo-boo on my exegesis.) “I prefer not to inject myself into magazine stories,” writes Reid, but he’s being disingenuous. Of the 16 pieces included here, I count six that wouldn’t exist but for his presence and four more in which he makes a significant appearance. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Reid’s disinclination to make himself the center of attention is offset by a sensible recognition that it’s silly to pretend you’re not in the room when you obviously are.

His most dramatic appearance in the book is in the last piece, an account of being accosted by bandits and shot in a Mexico City taxicab. And it’s in this most alarmingly personal of accounts that his reportorial skill really shines. This would be a hell of a story coming from anyone’s pen, but Reid tells it with the same quiet attention to detail that characterizes his account of his vegetable garden, and in doing so manages to convey the terror and disorientation of the experience in a way that more strident writing couldn’t.

Reid’s ouchy relationship with Texas Monthly hovers over this particular story, and not just because all three of his traveling companions worked at the magazine. Let’s see: true crime, Mexico, Texas Monthly staffers; clearly, the magazine that this story should appear in is…GQ. Strangely enough, that’s where Reid eventually sold the piece. Maybe someone at Texas Monthly thought it self-serving to publish a story populated by so many current and former employees. Or maybe then-editor Gregory Curtis’s account of the shooting, which ran immediately after the incident, was deemed to be sufficient coverage–which, if true, is akin to a TV news director declining to run an eyewitness account of a hurricane because the weatherman did such a bang-up job with his pointer and the Doppler display. For whatever reason, the piece that has Texas Monthly written all over it is the one that never made it into the magazine, a tart reminder of the freelancer’s eternal homelessness.

John Ratliff is a writer living in Austin. This is his first contribution to the Observer.

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