Recently, a 7-year-old of my acquaintance told me a long and elaborate joke whose refrain and punchline, "Everything's twice as big in Texas," he quite proudly, and more or less accurately, rendered as "Everythang's twyce as biig in Taxus." Now, I have a sense of humor about my native state, as any Texan who comes East must have, but when even the 7-year-olds tell jokes about us, it's time to bring out John Graves.
Beginning with the beautiful "Goodbye to a River" in 1960, an account of a canoe trip, John Graves has been something of a hero to me. A native son who left home, came back and actually liked it, he writes about Texas and Texans with full attention to the complex peculiarities that distinguish the region; but because he so lovingly particularizes, rather than generalizes, his thoughts come to us in larger terms, made universal by the art of language and feeling. Although permeated with a sense of place, Graves' writing translates Texas as though it were Anywhere, much as E. B. White took Maine and made it the world.
Despite the mention of "country life" in the subtitle of this collection of essays (most of which originally appeared in Texas Monthly), the book's real subject is the quality of mind that Graves calls "noticingness," defined as the "casual but constant observation of detail." Graves contrasts this noticingness to the indifference to his surroundings he felt during a year spent in Manhattan. Although he acknowledges that he knows city dwellers who miss very little of what goes on around them, the noticing attitude is more readily developed in country folk who have "a personal stake in the landscape," who must daily exercise surveillance over its animals and crops and objects in order to survive. Having become habituated to this attitude out of necessity, many countrymen, Graves says, take to following "curiosity where it leads like academics, amassing knowledge for its own sake," like the "laconic old Hill Countrynative who had more information on red ants than I've seen in books." This quality of noticingness is, in Graves' book, a way of living life to its fullest: "You notice. And, noticing, you live."
Graves himself notices everything from his limestone ledge in the rocky scrub-cedar Hill Country of South Central Texas, and in so doing makes the reader consider things he otherwise might not. The relative merit of fences, for example, barbed or net, or this about the problems of sewage in the country: "Except for anal-stage babies and certain happy coprophiles and a billion or so Third World subsistence farmers, not many people have much affection for the stuff, but it is one of the more central facts of life." Or construction, which Graves has a passion for, particularly in its most individual forms, as in the case of the unknown builder he calls "the Mad Arch Builder of Elm Tree," who must have been responsible for the myriad Roman arches that adorn one little West Texas village.
What struck me in reading these essays is how much in touch Graves is with human foibles and eccentricities, a good many of which he readily admits to sharing. There are few of us who don't, in some form or another, share his pleasure in junk. Who couldn't identify a little with the old man Graves describes who became fixated on glass bottles, going out each day in a suit, a double-breasted one, mind you, to collect them from other people's trash cans? He then stood them "in serried, sparkling, multicolored ranks on shelves he had built for them," outlined walkways and flowerbeds with them, filled the garage, until they finally "started creeping on little cat feet into the house, at about which point his family (bottles not being the only problem) committed him to the veterans' mental facility at Waco." And who among us constant battlers of overpowering technology wouldn't get a little thrill from a cordwood splitter made from "a wrecked lawnmower, a Case tractor's hydraulic pump, a long-stroke piston out of the landing gear of a World War II bomber, two lengths of railroad track, a massive driving wedge made from old plowshares welded together, and various other hunks of metal gleaned with a cutting torch or a wrench from car frames and elsewhere"?
Graves is a joy to quote because he is so wonderfully specific, mixing a flowing, literate and often syntactically complex prose style with his straightforward, understated ironic manner. He is equally as good on animals as he is on things, and he is full of wisdom, observing, for example, in "Some Chickens I Have Known," that "for hundreds and maybe thousands of years game fowl have been bred by men for a single main fell purpose, so that their ferocity far exceeds that of their wild progenitors and is in a sense not so much their own as an extension of human ferocity, which may well be the worst kind of all.
"But when I'm honest with myself I know their ferocity is damned beautiful as well, because in another sense what men have bred into them over the centuries is an ideal of total courage. . . ."
Perhaps the greatest kudos belong to the last essay, "The Loser," a moving and thoughtful piece about a country auction and the man "with the pinched waxy look of sickness on him" whose earthly possessions are being bid away. I understand now why I have never much liked these "sellout auctions -- melancholy events nearly always, aromatic with defeat and often with death."
In short, this is a book to browse in, to delight in, a book for all of us who take pride in whatever little bits of self-sufficiency and individuality we can muster, who like to "attain sometimes the pleasant illusion, rare these days, of dominating the world around you, technology and all." This is a book, too, that gives the lie to a certain member of the Eastern Literary Establishment, who shall remain nameless, who remarked at a recent writers' conference in Houston that "everyone knows all the good writers in Texas have already gone to New York anyway." Not by a long shot is what I say. Not by a long shot.