An Idle Word: A column
by BILL CUNNINGHAM
They buried Bud Shrake Wednesday.
I didn’t know him very well until later in his life when he became kind of the unofficial “First Gentleman” of Texas through his relationship with the late Ann Richards, who no doubt was waiting for him at the Pearly Gates drink in hand (at least I’m hoping you can go off the wagon there) and through his biographer Steve Davis, assistant curator of the Southwest Writers Collection at Texas State and all-around man of letters.
Actually Steve was the biographer of the six member group of “Texas Literary Outlaws,” his 2004 book, which ought to be required reading for anyone who wants to know about Texas writers or Texas in the 1960’s and 70’s. In it, he explores both the contributions and adventures of Shrake, Larry L. King (not the talk show host), Gary Cartwright, Dan Jenkins, Billy Lee Brammer and Peter Gent.
I could have known him better as one of my first clients as a publicist was the former Dallas Cowboy Gent but by 1983 when I flakked for him, Pete had become estranged from his literary friends as part of the fallout from a bitter divorce.
I’ve always been a huge fan of “Strange Peaches,” Shrake docu-novel about the Dallas of the 1960’s and the atmosphere that made it ripe for the Kennedy assassination. He even dated one of Jack Ruby’ strippers. Steve considers Shrake’s book on Reconstruction Texas, “Blessed McGill” one of the state’s greatest novels.
Selections from both as well as letters, magazine and newspaper articles and other writings are included in the book Steve edited last year, “Land of the Permanent Wave: An Edwin “Bud” Shrake Reader” which should be required reading for aspiring writers and students of American literature. In the interest of full disclosure, I serve on the advisory board of the Southwest Writers Collection, which released the book published by UT Press. Unfortunately, no remuneration is involved.
Actually, my favorite of his writing is about working for the Fort Worth Press, “a second rate newspaper in a fourth rate building” located next to a blues club where a 12-year-old Delbert McClinton got his start. It was the kind of place where you had to hand in your pencil stub to requisition a new one.
The story Thursday about his funeral mentioned his famous story headlined, “Cop Eats Family Pet.” It was actually about a police officer who had accidentally hit a deer that had gotten loose from a family enclave and not sure what to with it took it to the station, where the carcass was handed out as venison.
He went on to fame as a sportswriter for “Sports Illustrated” when it was one of the best magazines in the country, not just in its sports coverage but overview of a changing American society.
Despite his reputation as a “writers’ writer” (which all too often means that nobody buys your books but other writers), it was ironic that he finally reached best sellerdom in 1992 when he co-authored “Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book,” with the elderly Austin golf pro. His obits mentioned that when Shrake called the golfer to tell him that he had gotten an offer of a $100,000 advance to publish the book. Penick told him he would have to get back with him on it and the next day advised the writer that he didn’t think he and his wife could raise the 100 grand to publish the book. Shrake explained that an advance means the writers get the money upfront and the book sold millions.
Bill Witliff, who endowed our Writers Collection (and if he you haven’t seen it you ought to tour it sometimes when renovation is completed this month. It is already one of the great collections in the country and getting better), officiated at the service Wednesday.
“You can reach over any time you like and you can take one of Bud’s books from the shelf, and you can open it. And great God Almighty, there is Bud. In all his wisdom, and in all his humor, and in all his great joy of life,” Bill said.
I don’t even have to reach over to the shelf. I keep my copy of “Land of the Permanent Wave” on my desk.
TO MARK HENDERSON: Glad you enjoyed the column. Always good to hear from a fellow crime reader/writer. I googled your book ‘Perilaus” and its sounds intriguing. Does the title come from the character in Greek mythology or the torture device, which roasted its victims inside a brass bull. I’ll add it to my list to read.
You do make a mistake in thinking, “it might prove too British” for my taste. With a last name like Cunningham, I’m a sucker for Scottish mysteries and I notice your book is set in Edinburgh, home of Ian Rankin’s famed Inspector Rebus, and also the setting for the hardboiled writing of rising star Allan Guthrie. I list Denise Mina’s Paddy Meehan series set in Glasgow as among my new favorites and Louise Welch’s “The Cutting Room,” another Glasgow novel is among the most audacious noirs of the 21st Century.
I’ve also recently started reading “The Factory Series” by the late Derek Raymond, the “Godfather of UK Noir.
Many of the best mysteries in the world are now set in Scandinavia, particularly the works of Henning Mankell, but I think I’m getting into another future column here, perhaps “Around the World in 80 Murders.”
TO MILTON BURTON (who e-mailed me rather than commenting online): Glad you appreciated the blurb for “The Sweet and The Dead” (which richly deserves it) and thanks for attaching the short story, “A Good Beginning.” I’m eager for your new book.