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A Texas Story

My own mid-life crisis started early. Around puberty as I recall. It was then I developed the not common enough gift of introspection. It turns out mine was a grave case brought on not in the least by a severe case of acne and lack of self-esteem. Nor did it help being the butt of cruel but not unusual jokes by precocious teen-age humorists. Not only did I get to know myself fairly well, the intensity of such self-scrutiny inevitably caused a general warping of self-image not swiftly recognized nor easily corrected. Poised today at the vantage point of just within the healthy side of 50 years of age, a distance that allows a better averaging of perceptions, brings me to a view closer to reality I think, though the baggage still must be borne. The central character in Robert Flynn's 1987 novel, Wanderer Springs, finds himself in a similar situation. These perceptions usually take a lifetime to create, sometimes take a storytelling to sort out.book jacket

Will Callaghan is constrained to go home again though it is said that cannot be done. The death of someone who was almost family starts him on this road to confrontation, and in doing so he is forced to evaluate his life from a new perspective. This can be framed in three questions: who am I; what do I want; where do I belong? The universal dilemma. For some these are answered just after enduring and surviving high school. For some they are never even asked, at least not in such honest terms as to bring peace and contentment before reaching the golden years. Will may have pushed them out of his mind, just as he had the death of his high school sweetheart. He thought he had already come to terms with this as well as with the hundreds of other events and values that life in a small Texas town can impart.

"What values? 'Small Town' is where it's okay to spend a lifetime but not a weekend. Where repetition is the spice of life. Where when there's nothing to do, there's also no place you've never been." I was slipping into my country bumpkin role because I didn't know how to answer his question. "'Small Town' is where you can't pick your friends, you can't choose your neighbors, and your ancestors have already decided your enemies. Small town is where you use family to explain fault or flaw, where your reputation is the coin of the realm. You can't start over. You're always who you used to be, and who your parents were, and who the town says you are."
"Who were you?"
"I was Roma Dean Tooley's sweetheart."
"Is that the girl who drowned?"
The girl who drowned clung more tightly to my neck dead than she ever had alive.

This is a Texas story, my favorite of all literary and film genres. Richly quirky, broadly humorous, deeply tragic, ultimately rewarding, the imaginative stuff other Texas stories are made of like the films Lone Star, Red Rock West, Flesh and Bone, Fargo (ok, Fargo, while not strictly a Texas locale, still fits the bill in all other qualifications), along with books like Wally Lamb's This Much I Know Is True (though not set in Texas), or Anything for Billy and other Larry McMurtry tales. Will, a writer living in San Antonio, thought he had left behind lost roots in Wanderer Springs, but now attending the funeral he has little choice avoiding, combines this with an assignment from his boss: write a story of small-town Texas. It is with this vehicle he gallops through his past, weaving the personalities and events of all the notables and commoners of that early Texas community, and how it evolved and devolved in the shadow of its peer, Centerpoint. Parallel with this account of his community is a growing sense of his own evolution, maybe he can make sense of his own life if he can make sense of this dusty back corner of Texas that gave him birth and destiny.

It's not easy to write whether Houston intended to fight or run at San Jacinto, whether Fannin was tragic or inept, whether Crockett's death at the Alamo saved him from ridicule as a tiresome old yarnspiner who had outlived his audience. Nevertheless, that was easier than writing about Denver Worley, one of those gallant men in Confederate gray who had ridden with Terry's Texas Rangers, but who in Wanderer Springs tyrannized his daughter and sat on the porch shaking a purse full of coins to entice girls close enough to fondle, Or Buster Bryant who had made the greatest ride in the county but had roped his own horse. Or Bud Tabor who was shot through Box 287. In any objective light of history their lives were absurd. It was only in Wanderer Springs that their story merited more than a chuckle.

Such stories Will hints at are plentiful. It is through these reports, colors, textures and patterns that comprise a blanket either comforting or smothering his life, that reveal a definitive picture only when all the threads are finally tied in one great exquisite knot in the final chapter. The opening chapter frames the loom and selects the threads with which the tale is woven. In this unique beginning the author lists all the characters of the book including a one or two sentence summary, fit enough for an epitaph if one doesn't mind the blatant honesty. It is a device penned to promise eventual detail and fulfillment in later chapters, with a chuckle and tear. It also serves as a springboard to rearrange the pieces that make the puzzle of his life, as he tries to draw a different picture from one with which until this odyssey he had been fairly comfortable. It's funny how unforeseen events work their way into our preconceived notions of self identity. Are there people and things we've been running from, that for years we have compartmentalized, having sealed behind locked doors, maybe not even recognizing, but until confronted with force must fashion an incomplete picture of our existence? We can follow Will through his awakening, his journey to self-awareness, as he returns to Wanderer Springs and maybe awaken our own sleeping giants.

Like the other Texas stories previously mentioned, Flynn's writing is a treat to absorb. Fresh, concise, having a sharpness able to expose the soul and yet a delicate air to suspend a judgement. Here's one such taste:

I left San Antonio early in the morning to catch the sunrise on the hill country. It was at the best an eight-hour drive to Wanderer Springs, and after the hill country there was a lot of distance between scenery. Like most roads in Texas, it was a good one. The Texas Highway Department believes that the Constitution guarantees the pursuit of happiness in a private automobile.
      The journey was less through space than through time-the time of the railroad, and the windmill, the time of the unshuttered window and the unlocked door, milking time and the small prairie town, where hats and gloves were not for show and broken fingernails were honorable, where weather forged character and face, and determined the pace and purpose of the day.
      In San Antonio I had forgotten to look out the window each morning for the threat of sandstorm or the promise of rain. In Wanderer Springs life was in the sun, the rain, the wind, the soil, and we lived because God ordained it. In San Antonio life was slow and indoors. Only the poor toiled in solitude and the sun. No one else wanted to get that far from entertainment. In San Antonio the wind sounded lovely in the trees.
      The farther I got from San Antonio the farther I got from trade unions, JCs, debutantes, the arrogance of Washington, the fads of New York, the idolization of the useless; specialty shops, French style apartments, Swiss Chalet condominiums, and homes in the English manner with Old English lampposts and security personnel in Old English guardhouses; where consumption was an end in itself and food, books, entertainment, everything, was to be devoured and forgotten. Nothing was to last, even in memory.
      I was driving into the land of generalities-general store, general delivery, general practitioner, general business, general concerns, and as a general rule, generally known. It was the land of the long haul, of root hog or die, of hunker down. It was a land of waiting for the mail, for the children to come home, waiting for the rain, for spring, for milking, for planting, harvest, waiting to die, and waiting for the second coming. The land of the ubiquitous thermometer, rain gauge, and rocking chair.

One more entry should round out this examination. The examination of one's life brings up so many questions. Questions that some ponder in order to rest the soul. Some to stir it up again. Will has much to consider. I could repeat so many outstanding passages that show this, all that are a delight to read. But this may sum up his wandering the fertile fields of memory, through which he, not with few flinches, resolutely plows, with some slight growing glimmer of understanding.

The things your children do make no sense, leaving you wondering whether it's your child in another world, or the same world but not your child; not the one you know, the one you sheltered, and fed and taught right and wrong, truth and falsehood, fable and fairy tale.Dad looked at me as though I were a stranger, wondering who I was. Wondering where I came from.Not his loins.Not Grandmother's stock or Grandfather's seed.Some wayward gene from Mother's side had invaded my body.
"Did you do something to be ashamed of?"
Dad was trying to believe, trying to organize it so he could believe, but the question was inappropriate.I was ashamed of everything.I was ashamed that I had been born.I was ashamed that I was the kind of person something like this could happen to.I was ashamed to have to stand before him like this.I thought I would never know anything but shame as long as I lived. "No," I said.
"Why did Wink bring you home?"
"Brassfield came.He took me to Center Point.He thinks I drowned her." Dad sorted it out.Wink had called the Sheriff.The Sheriff had taken me to Center Point for questioning."Did Brassfield shame you?"
That's when I cried.Big, tearing sobs like a child.Dad put his hand on my shoulder.When I stopped crying he said, "I'll take care of Brassfield."He seemed almost relieved.Here was something he could do."There's not much I can do about the others."

There's much in life we can do little about. Sometimes the maturity comes when we finally recognize that and make our peace with what we do have under our control. It may have taken me longer than most to recognize that, but it's a goal many never obtain. Will must make the same assessment. It is a thing of beauty and amusement to watch. Not very much unlike our own lives.

I am reading this for the second time. It's one of those books that like a fine wine appreciates with time. The more time passes the more we comprehend the things of life we should appreciate. I first encountered Wanderer Springs the year it was first issued as I worked for Edwards Brothers, Inc., the Ann Arbor book manufacturer that printed and bound the hard cover edition. This volume remains my favorite contemporary work of fiction. Published in 1987 by the Texas Christian University Press, it garnered the prize that year for Best Novel of the West by the Western Writers of America, Inc. If you like to immerse yourself in stories that you can laugh at and cry through and draw all the incongruous characterizations in your own life you will appreciate this novel. At a relatively slim 340 pages one can take some leisure assimilating the story, in description, in spirit, in revelation. One might even come to see one's own struggle for life in these pages. And maybe even to grow from it. Isn't that what stories are for? To learn from the mistakes of others without the luxury and enjoyment of making them ourselves? Sure most of us would rather create our own catastrophes but it should be possible to acquire self-enlightenment in other ways. It shouldn't take a mid-life crisis to precipitate this. It just usually does.

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