Bud Shrake: Touched by an Angel?
Bud Shrake has been communing with angels since he was a child, but why?
First, the news: Bud Shrake has been communing with angels since he was a child. His friends have known about this for some time, but some of us have been confused about the revelation. Shrake, the former bad boy of Texas letters, was a one-time sports writing whiz and now one of the state's most revered writers who used to hobnob with exotic strippers and helped found a ragtag assembly of wild Texas writers who called themselves Mad Dogs. His proclivity to revelry was so well-known that it was preserved for posterity in a contentious essay Larry McMurtry published in 1981 about the state of Texas writing, in which he observed that "Shrake has always been an intriguing talent, far superior to his drinking buddies." The idea that Shrake would have anything in common with Precious Moments has caused some of us bewilderment. Your literary courier was so surprised that he had to suddenly eject his Sunday morning coffee from his mouth when he read an article in the Statesman on October 21 that mentioned the night in 1987 when Shrake was almost knocked over by an angel.
To make certain the angel-seeing wasn't a prank, I went to Shrake's reading at Barnes & Noble Arboretum on Friday, October 26, when he read from his new novel Billy Boy (Simon & Schuster, $21). When someone asked Shrake how long he's been seeing angels, he borrowed, in his usual funny way, a line from Larry L. King, who once wrote about his surprise as a child that angels could come and talk to his mother without ever leaving a hole in the wall. (Shrake's mother also talked to angels.) To feel equally at home among outlaws and angels demands a sensibility that is rare and it's one that Shrake seem to have perfected.
Billy Boy is a sweet, short book about the coming of age of Billy, transplanted to Ft. Worth by his drunken lout of a father after his mother dies in Albuquerque. Since he can't depend on his father for a single thing, he learns to fend for himself by becoming a caddie at Colonial Country Club, where famed golf legend Ben Hogan played. As he discerns how to stand up to rich jerks and poor thugs and negotiate the needs of a demanding Texas princess, he makes friends with a mysterious old man named John Bredemus, an actual, fascinating eccentric who liked to drive around the state constructing golf courses. Bredemus died in 1946, and Billy Boy takes place in 1951; when Billy begins to notice that Bredemus has abilities that living people don't possess, he at first dismisses them but must learn, in a world of practical bastards, to accept the things he cannot see. There is conclusive proof that Billy Boy is the only book in which Big Spring, Texas, is the setting for a man becoming an angel.
Billy Boy plays out like many coming-of-age novels. If it is somewhat predictable, it is also a vigilantly observed story about class and what happens to a place when it can no longer viably cling to its history as a bastion of the Old West. "Good people live in Forth Worth," a cop warns Billy near the beginning of the book. "The hijackers and thugs and queers and pimps and cons, the safecrackers and white slavers, the killers, we run their butt to Dallas, where they fit right in."