The Observer Review: Gary Cartwright’s The Best I Recall
At the end of award-winning Texas reporter and writer Gary Cartwright’s new memoir, The Best I Recall, I liked the journalist and knew not how I felt about the man, which is probably exactly what he intended. Cartwright attended Arlington High School, spent some years at the University of Texas as an undergraduate, and eventually got his B.A. in journalism from Texas Christian University. He wrote for a variety of Texas outlets across the six decades of his career, including the Fort Worth Press, Dallas Morning News and Texas Monthly, as well as national publications such as Rolling Stone and Esquire. He also wrote screenplays and multiple books, including Blood Will Tell and HeartWiseGuy.
At the Dallas Times Herald in the 1960s, as Dallas was first becoming a sports town, Cartwright, Bud Shrake and Dan Jenkins comprised what Cartwright refers to as “the best staff of sportswriters anywhere, ever.” Together, he writes, they created “a new take on the tradition of sportswriting,” one that valued prose and the author’s voice over game summaries and box scores, a style that soon “swept the country and became standard” in sports journalism.
But Cartwright covered sports for only eight years, and soon got out of the newspaper business altogether, citing as the reason two incidents involving the editorial staff at the Dallas Morning News: in one, they killed his story on a local country club that canceled a tennis tournament rather than allow famed black player Arthur Ashe to compete; in the other, editors muted his firsthand coverage of the 1965 Watts riots (Cartwright happened to be in Los Angeles covering the Cowboys).
He went on to do freelance work and eventually become a senior editor with Texas Monthly. The smoothest part of The Best I Recall is the section in which Cartwright recalls his favorite stories for that publication, providing some backstory to a piece he wrote about the impact of poverty on Texas families and stories that helped two different inmates get out of prison. Another highlight is his retelling of the night he spent in 1976 interviewing the stripper and stag movie actress Candy Barr at her home. Here Cartwright offers a thorough sketch of a woman famous for her body but past her prime, trying to determine how much to tell of her past and her present to a reporter she wasn’t sure she could trust.
One comes away from The Best I Recall respecting Cartwright as a journalist, but how readers may relate to him as a person is much more complicated. As a young, swashbuckling reporter in Dallas, Cartwright was a drinking, pill-popping, joint-smoking, sometimes-cocaine-sniffing man’s man who, he admits, had a “billowing ego” that clouded his own ability to see that his first marriage was falling apart. The nostalgia that seeps into this section is full of a masculine bravado about which Cartwright seems both proud and regretful. He writes of how he and his colleagues often spent time at work watching, through the windows of a hotel across the alley, “while black hookers worked their little hearts out”; about the time he and a friend switched beds to see if each other’s wives would notice (they did); and how he broke the jaws of both of his first two wives—part of a pattern of violent behavior that includes Cartwright hitting a man over the head with a shovel and kicking another down the stairs.
Toward the end of the book, Cartwright carefully and beautifully relates reconnecting with his son and traveling with his third wife, exhibiting his growth as a person. (Both storylines end with his respective loved ones dying of cancer.) But shortly after, we learn that he pushed his fourth wife down during a fight, and that this is why he was not at her bedside when she, too, died of cancer. Cartwright writes, “I will surely burn in hell for such wanton carelessness and disregard for others.” At points in The Best I Recall, it is hard to argue with that assertion.
In the book’s prologue, Cartwright writes that it is up to the reader to “decide if the stories have a ring of truth.” But the more compelling work, at least for this reader, lies not in parsing the lines between fact or fiction (does that ultimately matter?), but in figuring out what to make of the storyteller.