"My life seems to feed off impulses rather than cool logic," says Paul Hemphill fairly late in this book, which is largely autobiographical (sometimes symbolically autobirographical), although it is presented as a random collection of his newspaper and magazine pieces.
This observation came to him fairly late in life as in the book -- after he had "left a note for my wife of fourteen years and slammed some books and clothes into a two-hundred-dollar clunker station wagon and said goodbye to my first life." Neither his old nor his new life seems to have been particularly happy, but they were probably good lives for a writer in search of vivid material. Hemphill gravitated toward colorful situations and places and struck up a literarily useful acquaintance with quite a few people who are interesting to meet on the printed page, though they might get mixed reactions in person: an unnamed prostitute who has found Jesus; a simple boy from Tennessee who hopelessly bungled a bank robbery; a former moonshiner turned insurance swindler; a professional shoplifter who uses her 8-year-old son as an accomplice; an alcoholic's wife, trying to make it on welfare and food stamps; a man who lives on credit cards, a variety of names and occasional intimidation of collection agencies, changing his address every month or two.
The hardest parts, in life as in writing, are the transitions. For some reason, a recurring image seems to crystallize the feelings of Hemphill's hard transitions: the image of a man sitting alone watching something meaningless happening behind a glass screen because he has nothing better to do. Once, it is Hemphill, plunged back into bachelorhood, watching his clothes whirling around in a laundromat washer. He has to watch them because once, when he didn't, they were stolen. Even worse -- perhaps the worst scene in the book outside of the pieces on Vietnam -- is the time he found himself "at six o'clock on a Sunday morning, watching Oral Roberts on a motel color television set . . . drinking warm Scotch from a tumbler." Depression can hardly sink deeper.
Transitions go upward, fortunately, as well as down -- though they can still be unnerving. Here is Hemphill, on his way to a new life, being supported by his second wife while he writes a book, doubting his masculinity because he is doing housework and reassuring himself with the assorted tokens he has accumulated: "The image was one of macho. His uniform consisted of faded jeans and cowboy boots and turtlenecks and pea coats and leather jackets and T-shirts painted with Coors advertisements and with female thighs opened to the sun. He smoked Camels. He drank scotch straight from the bottle. He swam naked in frigid mountain lakes. He hung around saloons. He cussed good."
It's been a miscellaneous kind of life, and it results in a miscellaneous kind of book: a few pieces on baseball, a few on writing, some searing stories of war in Vietnam and some poignant ones of life on road; quick portraits of odd characters and a final series of semil-lyric fragments of autobiography as his somewhat disjointed life makes a decisive turn toward a happy end. The strange thing about this book, assembled like a mosaic from short pieces dashed off all through the '70s, is that is works, both in the individual stories and in their assembly into a book.
Paul Hemphill is a reformed journalist, a reformed baseball player and an unrepentant Southerner wherever he may happen to be living. He did not settle on writing as a career until harsh realities convinced him that he would never make it to the top in baseball, and his writing, 20-odd-years later, is still marked by that early trauma.
His Southern roots are evident even when he is writing a column for The San Francisco Examiner; even when he is writing about a South that is clinging precariously to its identity in a homogenized nation. He escaped from his journalistic past with such books as "The Nashville Sound," "The Good Old Boys" and his first novel, "Long Gone," but his journalism is the substance of this collection, which is devoted mostly to pieces about 1,000 words long -- a form in which he is a master.
The 1,000-word column exists not because of any inner necessity -- not because there are many subjects or styles that call for that approximate length, or because it is a congenial outlet for a certain type of writer -- but because it is a handy size for newspapers to handle, and it represents the distillation of generations of editiorial guesswork about the attention-span of readers. It is as demanding a form as the sonnet or haiku, at least when it has to be turned out on deadline, and as satisfying to its devotees when it is done properly. Hemphill did it properly practically all the time, at least in the samples that are enshrined in this collection. But reading through these miscellaneous pieces you can often feel him straining at the limits of the form; you get an inkling of the reasons why he has turned to the more spacious and leisurely outlet of real books.