Texas Book Festival Wrap-Up

Taking stock of this year's panels and readings

Jimmy Santiago Baca reading from his book of poetry, <i>Healing Earthquakes</i>, on Sunday
Jimmy Santiago Baca reading from his book of poetry, Healing Earthquakes, on Sunday (Photo By John Anderson)

Sunday, November 18

With two early panels -- "New Hope for the Dead: Posthumous Books" and "C'est la Vie: Biographies" -- and the Festival-closing "Taps: A Tribute to Willie Morris" an unseasonably muggy day of rest became a day of the dead, though poet Jimmy Santiago Baca's frenzied Senate chamber reading and the 250-plus phalanx of Lance Armstrong fans certainly livened things up. At 11am, while a couple pushing a stroller wandered by wondering if the postponement of Armstrong's discussion of It's Not About the Bike until 3:30pm was a Festival ploy to fill up more panels with should-we-stay-or-should-we-go gearheads (dad's theory) and if Armstrong "even counts" as an author (mom's), Nile Southern was trying on Jesse Sublett's sunglasses at the "New Hope for the Dead" panel. "This is part of my schtick now," he said, positioning a BookForum on his shoulder, since the cover of the recent issue of the highbrow mag featured Terry Southern, black Ray-Bans glued to his face. Terry's uncollected hipster musings were collected by his son after his 1995 death in Now Dig This, published this spring. The resemblance is all nose. "The reason I did this book, the thing I was trying to get across, was his capacity to astonish," Southern explained.

One floor and three doors down, Helen Moore Barthelme nearly wept when discussing her late ex-husband, experimental Texas novelist Donald Barthelme. The Genesis of a Cool Sound, a biography and memoir of their decade-long marriage, was published by Texas A&M in June. "He had a special kind of idealism, even if it didn't always show up in his work," she said. "I could never really express how he affected people." One ill effect, however, was when Barthelme dedicated his first book, Come Back, Dr. Caligari, to the second of his four wives. "That was the only thing that enraged me," said the first of those wives, but she was smiling. "He had a lot of emotional problems."

One couldn't begin to diagnose the emotional problems of the three men on display at "Coming Through the Wry: Humor in Fiction." Tom Doyal, James Hynes, and Robert Flynn were more like the Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew riffing on the world of arts and letters than a panel of literary talking heads. Doyal on publishers who expect writers who are funny to only write funny: "It reminds me of someone wanting car crashes in all your movies." Hynes, late of The Lecturer's Tale, on post-9/11 irony: "My friend Mimi's sitting in the front row here, and she was telling me how she went to another panel like this yesterday, and it was about food writing. And somebody asked, 'How has food writing changed since the World Trade Center attack? Is it OK to keep eating?' I don't know. As far as I'm concerned, irony is one of the lifebloods of Western literature. It's not gonna go away."

Vivé Griffith (Weeks in This Country), Kurt Heinzelman (The Halfway Tree), and worldly slam champ Genevieve Van Cleve were "Getting the Word Out About Poetry," while the power trio of Austin novelist Sarah Bird, New York literary agent Henry Dunow, and Southwest Texas' creative writing program director Tom Grimes held court in the House chamber on "From Manuscript to Marketing: an Insider's View of Publishing," a new addition to the Festival. "Tone and voice are the most difficult things a poet does," said UT professor Heinzelman at the former. As for the publishing world, the insider's view was that the most difficult thing about publishing remains publishing.

After high pulp priestess Elizabeth McCracken inspired what she called a "room full of pity" with a reading from her much-anticipated vaudeville homage Niagara Falls All Over Again ("I can honestly say with a great degree of certainty that I do not understand men, I do not understand women, and I do not understand children," she said, "but I find eccentricity so endearing"), New Mexico poet, filmmaker, and memoirist Jimmy Santiago Baca (A Place to Stand) absolutely ravished his capacity audience with four poems full of rage and romance. "His face was like a weary room and board stairwell/of a downtown hotel," Baca read from "Tire Shop." "He had the kind of face that was condemned by life to live out more days/in futility ... and I feel ashamed, somehow, that I cannot live/their lives a while for them/yet grateful they are here." Even the cops were smiling.

With scheduled panelist and former Texas Observer linchpin Ronnie Dugger lying in a Massachusetts hospital bed with an undisclosed illness -- "doing fine and getting his nourishment," according to moderator Bill Dunlap -- the Morris tribute was a subdued celebration, but the "incestuous panel" of writer/editor JoAnne Prichard Morris (Willie's widow), photographer David Rae Morris (Willie's son), Dugger's son as his understudy, and Austin politico and Morris cohort Nadine Eckhardt, found plenty to talk about. "We were really a bunch of little heathens back then," joked Eckhardt of Morris' postwar bohemian cartel. Eckhardt, whose ex-husband and legendary congressman and cartoonist Bob Eckhardt died just last week, said she has completed her own memoir and that it will be published soon: "Willie said I should write a book, so I did."

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