Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Richard Whittaker, Fri., March 21, 2008
Mavericks: A Gallery of Texas Charactersby Gene Fowler
University of Texas Press, 158 pp., $19.95
"This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That wisdom, from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, is at the heart of this collection of millionaires, giants, wild men, snake women, and backward walkers. From singular obsessives to full-blown unpredictable kooks, local historian-of-the-quirky Gene Fowler has breezily chronicled the exploits of dozens of those special Texans that made life a little less mundane.
While its snippet-sized biographies might have made some of its coarser-tongued subjects call it "perfect reading for on the crapper," don't think there's no depth here. Fowler's subjects told amazing tales of their exploits (half of them cut Daniel Boone's hair, danced on horseback for Buffalo Bill, or played canasta with Pancho Villa), but these aren't unscrupulous liars or deranged fantasists. The only difference between a maverick and a performance artist, Fowler argues, is a National Endowment for the Arts grant. Take self-commissioned "Commodore" Basil Muse Hatfield: on the surface, a bearded old coot that took a barge down the Trinity when everyone said it couldn't be done. But under that, there was a wily self-publicist who used his notoriety to attract investment to the river basin he loved. The book doesn't take the time to examine, substantiate, or disprove every wild claim, because that would miss the point. Did it matter whether Madam Candelaria was really at the Alamo or that her fame from that claim helped her become the fandango queen of San Antonio?
Many modern eccentrics and cultural pioneers are following in well-trodden steps documented here. Cyclone Davis Jr. ran for (and lost) every elected office before perennial Democratic candidate Gene Kelly could vote, and "Snake King" Willie Lieberman was picking up rattlers in a dress before Leslie's first thong was woven. But maybe there's a subtler point here: that there's nothing more Texan than a maverick. Like Willie Nelson's long hair is really the way the cowboys wore it (protects the ears from cold and the eyes from the sun), Austin weirdness may be the real Texas.