Monday, August 31, 2009

Goodbye to a River

They shaped imperial ranches in the big country and later, mostly under the pressure of wives who wanted to be able to spend the new cattle money in a civilized way, many of them moved back to live in Fort Worth or San Antonio--according to whether it was the Southern Pacific or the T. & P. that had threaded their particular empire onto the nation's railroad web. They built big nineties-style mansions in those towns, and their descendants live there still--some of them still rock solid, direct, functional, so that you can see in them how the empires got built; others gone rotten with whiskey not sweated out in work and this century's easy oil money, spewing out in neurosis and wild sport and mismarriage the inherited restless force that shoved their grandfathers against the Comanches and the plains.

Having just finished "Goodbye to a River" for the first time, I must say that I am in such awe of John Graves right now, that I am almost without words. All that comes to mind is the selfish thought: it's kind of like Angle of Repose, except better, and it is set in my neck of the woods. I fully acknowledge that, maybe I think it is better because it is set just outside my hometown. And that it also happens to provide a rich history of land that, thanks to a renewed family interest in all things ranch, I am just now becoming familiar with. Nevertheless, having spent the majority of my life up to this point as, for lack of a better descriptor, a suburban house-cat, reading about the rich history of the land I grew up on is an exhilarating feeling, bias or not. With his narrative, Graves does such a good job of identifying place, both in time and place, that I would go so far as to say that anybody reading Goodbye to a River would feel connected to the Brazos and its land.

Beyond the nature writing, which is superb to say the least, Graves also identifies "the inherited restless force," describing its origin at length in the quoted passage above. The deliberate ambiguity in the antecedents of "they" in the bolded sentence combines the "rock-solid" functionality and neurotic decay with both the space of the physical houses and the timeline of the descended families who live in them.Though incredibly nuanced, this combination captures the paradox that is inherent not only in the manifest destiny that brought my forefathers to Texas, but that now drives and, in some cases, festers within their progeny. Any of my compatriots with whom I grew up in Fort Worth relate to this passage in one way or another. We have all seen this landscape. We have seen the remnants of a fallen prairie empire and the birth of something strange and overly robust (Barnett Shale, anyone?).

What fascinates me mostly about the work however, and this might be my city bias coming out, is that though Graves's focus in Goodbye to a River lies mainly outside of Fort Worth, on the history of the Brazos, and the damming of the river that took place decades ago, he really sings when he lays out his distrustful yet nostalgic vision of Fort Worth. As splendid as it is to hear him discuss the of the Comancheria and squirrel meat Burgoo, to me, what is more fascinating is the way in which his writing captures the decay and exuberance in the history of a place like Fort Worth. Just look at the T&P railroad building in Fort Worth, and how it embodies the the Gravesian force.


The Andrews Gallery said...

Beautiful. I am actually going to read this now. Will you write something for the gallery blog? I want to start having guest writers. Carte Blanche!

Gup said...

Nice. I went down the river below Lake Whitney for about 10-12 miles via canoe this spring. I stopped and fished some deep pockets here and there. I lost count of the amount of old dumped car tires on the river bottom which made me sad and angry. But hearing and seeing fish jump and ducks fly over head was worth my journey. So glad you weighed in on this important novel. FW has changed and you may have to look hard to find FW's pulse but its true soul can be found in people like you.