Words Read a peach

Grover Lewis' prose transcends the '70s rock era that made him almost famous

Let's face it, there's no longer anything new about "New journalism." Using narrative techniques such as scenes, dialogue, and characters in the telling of non-fiction stories is so established as to be utterly unremarkable. The icons of new journalism, foppish dandies and hard-drinking recluses or recently deceased pop icons, are the stuff of legend - to no one more than their fellow scribes. The writing from this era, roughly the early '60s to the mid '70s, is self-indulgent, reckless, and sometimes completely magical. All three qualities manifest in the work of Dallas native Grover Lewis.

Edited by fellow Texan magazine writers Jan Reid and W.K. Stratton, Splendor in the Short Grass: The Grover Lewis Reader features a potpourri of classic culture reporting from the sets of era films such as Peter Bogdanovich's The Last Picture Show and Milos Forman's One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. There's the requisite rock 'n' roll reporting live from the famously murderous Altamont concert, where Hell's Angels stabbed three fans in plain sight as the Stones rocked on, oblivious. Lewis also made a mark traveling with the hard-rocking and even harder coke-snorting Allman Brothers Band.

Touring with rock gods and lurking on film sets no longer seems terribly transgressive. In our "been there, done that" pop-culture present, it's hard to expect anyone not to shrug. And yet, even if the premise and "gonzo" tactics of many of Lewis' pieces fail the test of time, his prose still kicks considerable ass. In fact, what shines 30 years on is not Lewis' reporting (too much of it was wasted on the lingering rants of drunks, vacuous aspiring stars, and vacuous rockers). For those who pored over Rolling Stone and The Village Voice in its heyday, these pieces will evoke a nostalgia that's likely to give them more sway than they merit, not unlike contemporary 30-somethings who still believe Star Wars is an art film.

What stands out in Splendor are Lewis' own recollections, both on pop culture (he was a film and music junkie) and his own uniquely hellacious childhood. In Cracker Eden, originally published in Texas Monthly in 1992, Lewis returns to Oak Cliffs, the working-class Dallas suburb of his youth. Witness the sober assessment of his kinfolk:

"The women tended to be pop-eyed with faith in one nostrum or another, the men long-winded dullards. The backwardness I figured they couldn't help, but I resented their willingness to lick the hands of their oppressors ... Over time, I came to regard them - tribally, anyway - as patsies on a treadmill. Trying to reason with them was like slamming into a wall of soft cheese."

Better still:

"In our primary color culture - 97 percent white in 1950 - the No. 1 rule was: Don't mess up ... Above all, you had to 'cut it.' Cut the yard, keep your hair cut, cut the mustard ... cut the crap, boy when you spoke out of line. Docility was preferred over intelligence, guaranteeing the whittling-down of the individual to fit unvarying social molds. This bred the kind of multi-edged boredom that comes from poverty locked into place by spiritual poverty."

Splendor in the Short Grass:
The Grover Lewis Reader

Edited by Jan Reid
and W.K. Stratton
University of Texas Press
$24.95, 349 pages
ISBN: 029270559X
Of course, Lewis' childhood was more harrowing than the above let on. When he was 8 (and living in San Antonio), his parents shot each other to death "with a pawn shop pistol." Lewis' childhood was one of being shuttled from one abusive, Bible-thumping relation to the next. He ran away from home, realizing that his options "were either suicide or homicide." Fortunately, he landed with his bachelor uncle Spook, a union machinist who treated him "as a younger brother instead of a ward." There he flourished, reading four books a weeks and logging time at the movies. At the University of North Texas he was a contemporary of Larry McMurtry. A professor who taught both men would later remark that Lewis was the more talented.

Splendor in the Short Grass is a gem of a collection, less for aspiring journalists than those interested in a Southern style of literary nonfiction that was never co-opted. Should a young tyro take too much inspiration from Lewis' sprawling, languid style he or she will face the likely prospect of an unpublished future. And there's the rub: As weird as the culture has become, no journal of consequence, even in the so-called alternative press, wants a 7,000-word piece on a concert, or a movie set wherein the writer features prominently as a character. It's not done anymore. Sometimes it's not hard to see why. For even when executed by a pro like Lewis, the experiential quality can get kinda boring.

When Lewis died of lung cancer in 1995, he was under contract to extend Cracker Eden into a memoir. Needless to say, it was a shame he died before it was finished. For Lewis was better in his head - both as a critic, a memoirist, and an essayist - than as a reporter. If anything, he was too bright a star to be outshined by his sources.

By John Dicker

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