BYRD S HOUSTON SIG BYRD’S HOUSTON By Signian Byrd VIKING PRESS OUT OF PRINT One of the most fascinating letters is from July15,1981, sent a few days before McCarthy turned 48. He was in a down period. He’d separated from his second wife, most of his books were out of print and he was struggling to make ends meet. In the letter, he thanks Woolmer for inquiring about his literary affairs. McCarthy writes, “I’m more than happy for anybody to interest themselves, although I should warn you it’s a long & tiresome take at best.” McCarthy goes on to tell Woolmer, “My agent for several years was Candida Donadio …” I stop there. This is from the man who, as legend had it, went most of his career without having an agent? The mention of Candida Donadio is stunning. She was not just an agent, but one of the best in the business. Her other clients included Thomas Pynchon, Phillip Roth and Joseph Heller. This new information shakes up McCarthy’s image as a man who toiled in isolation to avoid becoming corrupted by literary society. I read the rest of the letter, but as McCarthy had promised, it is a long litany of complaints about his lack of success. The letter is painful, but with the passage of time, you can smile at it. Four months after he wrote it, McCarthy received his MacArthur grant, which rescued him financially and allowed him to reinvigorate his career by moving to the Southwest. McCarthy’s interest in film is evident in many of his letters to Woolmer. McCarthy enjoyed early success as a screenwriter when PBS filmed his script for The Gardener’s Son in 1977. After that, he apparently caught the screenwriting bug, and he spent the next decade or so writing other scripts. He acquired a film agent in addition to his literary agent. There’s no indication that any of his scripts were produced or even sold. Returning to the McCarthy archive, I begin to look more closely at the screenplays. Though McCarthy couldn’t sell them, that doesn’t mean that they are failures. A few of those early scripts evolved into his biggest successes as a novelist. His acclaimed Border Trilogy, which began with All the Pretty Horses, was inspired by a screenplay he completed in 1978. Another screenplay, No Country for Old Men, was finished in the 1980s. Yet nothing happened with it for nearly 20 years, until McCarthy rewrote that story as a novel, published in 2005. The early version of No Country for Old Men is unusual by McCarthy’s standards because it contains a conventional happy ending. Sheriff Bell and a very-much-alive Llewelyn Moss team up in a climactic gun battle to take down the Evildoernamed “Ralston” in this draft. Having the good guys prevail was an obvious ploy to a potential buyer, another indication that McCarthy was more market-oriented than his legend would have it. When I’d begun my research in the McCarthy archive, I’d pretty much believed in the mythological version of him. I viewed McCarthy as the ultimate literary outsider, a man immune to most commercial considerations. As he’d told Oprah on TV, he didn’t really care whether millions of people read his books. The portrait of McCarthy that emerges in the archives is more complex. McCarthy had briefly allowed me into his living room that cold December morning, but it was the archives that allowed me to wander around the rooms of his house. 127 Steve Davis is a curator at the Wittliff Collections. He is the curator of Cormac McCarthy: Selections from the Permanent Collections, on display through Dec. 12 at the Wittliff 9WATCH a trailer for No Old Men at txto.cominccourrtry LOST BOOKS OF TEXAS Lost Houston by Brad Tyer WENTY-FIRST CENTURY READERS LUCKY enough to stumble into Sig Byrd’s Houston can be forgiven for wonder ing if such a place ever existed. Even Byrda newspaperman well aware of time’s passingmust have foreseen that. “The persons, places, and incidents in this book are real persons, places and incidents,” Byrd wrote in the book’s not-quite-boilerplate front matter. “Any resemblance between this book and a work of fiction is either coincidental or, what is more likely, is entirely in the reader’s imagination. He probably has been reading too many novels and has neglected to cultivate the acquaintance of his neighbors.” Byrd wrote a column called “The Stroller” for the daily Houston Press in the 1950s, and later for the Houston Chronicle. These stories were adapted from the columns. Byrd did not neglect to cultivate the acquaintance of his neighbors. He found them gassed up on Milam Street’s Catfish Reef and cutting vinyl sides in the Bloody Fifth Ward, shoeing horses on Vinegar Hill, and fishing for gar in the East End’s “bilge-green bayou.” Fun-gals and law-hawks; ex boxers and lady bouncers; pachucos, pastors, poets, and ragpickers with handles like Twitchy Tess, Deacon Neal the Gospel Man, Sam Petro the Tomato King, and Don Antonio of the Segundo Barrioeach wearing what Byrd called “the story face,” wherein he discerned “truth with the bark of The truths of that raw Houston were disappearing even as Byrd wrote about them, but he immortalized his neighbors in prose that carried all the noir melancholy of The New Yorker’s Joseph Mitchell and the vernacular panache of Damon Runyon. “Weazened” characters looked “slaunchwise” at each other on Byrd’s shadowy Houston streetcorners. Those are real words, and Byrd’s Houston was a real world. It still connects across the years, though the book and two novels that preceded it are long out of print, even after its author’s barely heralded death in 1987. This being the 21st century, the connections are electronic. There’s a Sig Byrd’s Houston page on Facebook, and Byrd’s “Stroller” columns are archived in scanned facsimile on Flickr. Read themor Sig Byrd’s Houston, if you can find a copyalongside 1951’s Houston: Land of the Big Rich, by longtime Houston Post columnist George Fuermann, for a literary archaeology of a city where truth is not strangerjust more interestingthan fiction. El Contributing writer and Ifouston native Brad Tver is currently writing a nonfiction book in the Pintlar mountains of MOntallg, whence he blogs about books, beef jerky and river restoration at http://web.ine.comAlyer/ Sig Byrd’s Houston at txio.conybyrd 9READ Sig Byrd’s “The Stroller” columns at tklo.corn stroller SEPTEMBER 17, 2010 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 15
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