JC: I’m reading Bruce Holbert’s Lonesome Animals now and enjoying it. The marketing materials told me it would be like True Grit and The Sisters Brothers, which is a damned happy reading place. Seriously, though, Holbert’s main character Russell Strawl has a natural mean streak stronger than Rooster Cogburn’s, but I don’t know yet if he can ride with a gun in each hand and the reins in his teeth. Here’s Bruce’s essay on the books that made him a reader and writer.
When We Fell In Love by Bruce Holbert
I grew up in a bookless house, a trailer, actually. My father worked construction and we followed the work. Books are wonders, but they are heavy and my parents were a practical people. Grand Coulee was as close to home as I knew. Grandparents on both sides resided there. My maternal grandparents owned an enormous house, at least to my sensibility, and they owned shelves of books. Downstairs were encyclopedias and dictionaries and upstairs pulp fiction novels from the Thirties and Forties, but the print was small and I was more interested in the lurid covers anyway.
My father’s mother, Dot, pioneered the country I came from. Her name appears in all but the most sterile of regional histories. She taught school in one room school houses and traveled by sled to teach in homes. The canyon bracketing her farm is still named after her father. She retired the ranch and in a small house in town, perched at the side of the canyon overlooking the dam, where she farmed a series of gardens: roses and pansies, tulips and vegetables in rows on ledges carved into the hillside. She adopted so many cats she couldn’t keep their names straight. They became colors instead: Whitey, Old Blue, the Gray Ghost.
By then my aunts had scattered like dandelion hair under a hard breath. My father, alone, remained in shouting distance, and it was then I discovered that all our travel was just the first act of returning.
Eloise, the middle sister, burned through her days like a wind-driven prairie fire. Her mouth was a lipstick smear and her mascara-penciled eyebrows wings in flight over smoky green eyes. She put flowers in her hair and donned loud print blouses and frightened everyone but her children, whom summers she deposited with my grandmother. Nights, they would sleep under the stars and smoke and hyperventilate and sniff model glue from the bottom of paper bags and shoot pistols at random sounds in the dark. Some are still alive, though Eloise herself succumbed to liver cancer some years ago.
Marge, the oldest, wandered into and out of a pair of short-lived marriages and, later entered that low- level political toil in which widows and intellectual divorcees engage. She once said she found men far more satisfying as well-dressed ideas than bumbling husbands or lovers without pants. She wore her hair short, which made her sharp features more severe. At family gatherings, she perched cross-legged on a stool in my grandmother’s backyard, smoking ladies cigarettes, dropping her eyes into a novel or literary magazine when the conversation became especially tedious. She was beyond debating her family, which seemed to her purposefully misinformed, though she would occasionally chastise me with philosophical questions I could never fully consider until hours later. In my family, she was most like me, displaced by the same malady.
It must have been in 1969 when she gave me two books: Catch 22 and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. She offered them to me not as gifts but as assignments. “You should read these if you’re anything like I think you are.” I wasn’t sure what she thought I was, but I read the books. They intimidated me. I had to stop and consider the events and ideas after three or four pages. I didn’t always get the jokes. Often I read through parts I didn’t understand, hoping that reading ideas in context would work a little like my elementary teachers were instructing me to read difficult words by examining their surroundings. It worked well enough to keep me curious and I acquired enough from the books to know there was tenfold that I had not yet parsed. The project occupied my summer. My aunt never inquired about my progress, never commended me for packing one or the other book with me from place to place.
Then, six months or so later the wife of a minister in our town and a substitute teacher, handed back essays she’d assigned us the day before. She set my paper on the desk and it contained the same marks as the others, but she whispered quietly, “You are a writer.” I have never thought of myself as anything else since.