Saturday, August 25, 2007

Possibly the last book of the summer

Classes start on Monday, so my pleasure reading will be severely limited henceforth. But I wanted to make a few notes regarding Blessed McGill by Edwin Shrake. Shrake is a writer who is possibly best known as the late Ann Richards' main squeeze. He’s one of those writers along with Gary Cartwright and Peter Gent who came out of the sports world, moved to Austin, started smoking dope and hanging with Jerry Jeff and Willie and Waylon, and generally had a good ole cosmic time. See Texas Literary Outlaws for details. It has been suggested that the surplus of booze, pot, cocaine and other sundry drugs consumed by these guys held them back as writers. Maybe so—we can’t be sure they would have written any better if they weren’t so fucked up.

In any case, Shrake wrote several fairly serious novels (unlike his old pal Dan Jenkins, who wrote lots of humorous novels but certainly lacked any literary ambition). I’ve read one, But Not For Love (1964), which is OK but not great. You get the idea that he read The Gay Place and felt inspired to do his own urban Texas novel.

I found a copy of his cosmic cowboy Western, Blessed McGill (1968), and decided to give him another try. This book was excellent. It rambles back and forth in time, and tells the story of Peter Hermano McGill, son of an Irish father and Spanish mother in early Texas. He lives the life of a buffalo hunter and itinerant fortune seeker, becoming friends and enemies with various Indian bands and half-breeds that inhabit Northern Mexico, Texas and New Mexico in the years after the Civil War. One of his childhood friends is a boy who is half Lipan Apache Indian and half German (there were a lot of German immigrants in Texas). He grows up to be a highly feared outlaw Indian named Octavio, and his path crosses again with McGill’s in adulthood, with disastrous results.

You sense that Shrake was again influenced by another novel, this time Little Big Man (1964) by Thomas Berger. I’ve never read it but have seen the movie. But whether Shrake was influenced or not, Blessed McGill stands on its own. What I like about it is the way Shrake builds a believable and complex world described by McGill. Supposedly he researched the hell out of this book, and it shows in the wealth of detail, but never does the detail feel false or expository. It always feels like something that McGill would notice and discuss.

Another thing I like about it is the way it is an adventure, an odyssey, that becomes literature. This strikes me as a rare combination. The obvious book that comes to mind is Moby Dick. But what Blessed McGill reminded me of more was Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimaraes Rosa. Devil to Pay in the Backlands was a vaster, richer book, but the flavor is similar.

Finally, as I read it, I kept thinking what a great movie it would make. It would be a real Western epic.

I’m sure Blessed McGill is out of print, but it should be easy enough to find if you are interested. I recommend it.



Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home