Busby, Mark, and Terrell Dixon, eds. John Graves, Writer. Austin: University of Texas, 2007.
As John Graves, beloved Texan and regional writer, nears his ninetieth birthday in 2010, the accolades of one of the greatest, if not the greatest, thinking minds of Texas’s Belles Lettres are sure to follow. Yeah, he has had the imitators take long canoe trips in his wake many years later and write about their adventures in the sense of revisiting his 1960 classic, Goodbye to a River, and trying to find how it fits into their urbanized lifestyles-only to find they’re not cut out for nature and that the seemingly simple prose and storyline of Goodbye is a lot more complex than it appears at a first glance. Critics moreover, surely a surly bunch in their own rights, have began to embrace his earlier works and recognize them for the greatness that exudes from them. So, when Dr.s Mark Busby of Texas State University and Terrell Dixon of the University of Houston collected some of the best printed criticism and tributes under the simple title John Graves, Writer, the book and title together created not only a great tribute to the Man, but a twist of irony which could never be lost on Graves. The simple title belies the density of narrative within the bounding boards and introduces the readers to new ways to perceive the great John Graves.
From the opening section of the book, “Talking with John Graves,” the import of the message is clear. Graves, the father of Texas thought, is even more poignant with his chosen spoken words than he is with his studied and poured over writing. Graves is as engaging in the written form as he is the spoken, and for the reader of Writer, this make the book special in the sense it feels Graves is as engaged with you as he is one of the interviewers, Dave Hamrick. He weighs his words to test the weight before he speaks them and the leave the reader waiting for more as one does with one of Graves’s trademark ellipsis-ending sentences-almost as if he want you to ruminate more about what was just said…
Next comes the prerequisite section simply titled “Friends.” What Busby and Terrell give us here is an intimate portrait of a private man through the eyes of those who know him best-Bill Wittliff, William Broyles (Texas Monthly editor), Rick Bass, and others. The endearing, grandfatherly nature of Graves comes through in the reverent words his friends use to describe him. There are times the words even compel the reader to call John their own-who he is. He is ours to share and cherish. His writing is as special as the man, and Busby and Dixon capture this in their selections.
The finally, what book on a writer wouldn’t be complete without the words of the critics? Busby and Dixon scoured the Graves scholarship to narrow down nine of the best articles of scholarly criticism to understand the works of Graves. Most of the works investigated are Goodbye to a River, Hardscrabble, and From a Limestone Ledge, but that’s all we need. Those three books, and the accompanying criticism, can even make the most remote Texas-loving yankee understand what we Texans are about. The corpus of criticism captures the reasons behind Graves’s eclectic punctuation choices and his reasons for style. They also capture the idiosyncratic nuances that make his books such elegant masterpieces.
John Graves, Writer is a must have pocket companion to reading any of Graves’s work. The scholarship and bibliography are par excellence for any Graves study, and better yet, it is a tribute becoming a Texas genius.