Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Elmer Kelton

Raise  your hand if you've read a book by Elmer Kelton. Raise both hands if you've read The Time It Never Rained. That novel was the choice this year for the Mayor's Book Club in Burleson, a city adjoining Fort Worth, and Jim Lee and I presented a program tonight. Elmer, who died in 2009, was a Texas treasure, a man who wrote novels about the American West that weren't westerns. And The Time It Never Rained has been called one of the dozen or so best novels written by an American in the twentieth century.
Elmer was ranch born and raised but he was a bookish child with poor eyesight, and he never made a hand. HIs younger brothers could rope much better. His idea of watching the herd was to keep one eye on the cattle and the other on the book he'd propped up in his saddle. As he neared high school graduation, he told his father he wanted to study journalism, and in his words his father gave him a look "that could have killed Johnson grass" and said, "That's the trouble with you kids. You don't want to work for a living." Elmer studied at UT, his education interrupted by WWII, from which he brought home an Austrian bride and her son. He began publishing in Ranch Romances, a popular magazine, and then writing pulp, formulaic novels for Ballentine Books. In the 1970s he broke out of the stereotype with The Day the Cowboys Quit, a novel about the cowboy strike at Tascosa in the 1880s. As in all of Elmer's books, the research behind the story was thorough and impeccable. Other major novels during the 1970s included Stand Proud, The Man Who Rode Midnight, The Wolf and the Buffalo, The Good Old Boys, and, of course, The Time It Never Rained, all published by Doubleday.
For forty years, while writing novels, Elmer worked as an agricultural journalist, most of those years as editor of Livestock Weekly, the weekly bible for West Texas ranchers. He traveled to auctions and sat in coffee shops and absorbed the people and the land. It was his country, and he spoke their language. He said once he wrote Time because it became harder and harder to write a story about the drought. There were only so many ways he could say, "It isn't raining." He wrote the novel but New York publishers rejected as a quiet agrarian novel; in the early 1970s, he rewrote it completely and it was published.
Elmer liked to put characters in a time of change and see how they react. In Time, Charlie Flagg, a rancher getting on in years, sees change all around him. The seven-year-drought of the 1950s causes him to sell his cattle and raise sheep; then sell his sheep and raise goats. He loses his leased land and has to take a mortgage on what he owned free and clear. Others are taking government aid, but Charlie refuses. He had always been the patron, but relationships between Anglos and Mexicans are changing. His son leaves the ranch for the rodeo circuit, marries a floozy from Dallas. The fire has gone out of Charlie's own marriage. And yet he clings to what he knows is right; he plods ahead day by dogged day. This is a story of West Texas and the kind of people who survived in that dry, unforgiving, and unpredictable land, the land that Elmer knew so well. No spoilers here except to say that Elmer didn't believe in tying things up in neat little packages. That's not, he explained to me once, how life happens.
If you haven't read Time, maybe you saw the Tommy Lee Jones movie of The Good Old Boys. That book too is a good place to start dipping into Elmer's sixty-plus novels. TCU Press has reprint editions of many of the major ones (1.800.826.8911 or http://www.prs.tcu.edu/).
Elmer Kelton died in August 2009. I miss him still. There's not a book festival, historical meeting, or literary gathering where I don't still expect to see him. I have a hard time wrapping my mind around a world without Elmer. In tribute to that feeling, Jim Lee and I edited Elmer Kelton: Essays and Memories, now available from TCU Press. Elmer was one fine writer and one great and humble man.

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