Gramps, Caught in Texas, Ends Up at McMurtry’s

Pages from a notebook:

Thursday, April 27: I fly down to Dallas with several purposes in mind. First and foremost, to see my newest grandson, Michael Joseph, for the first time. He was born last Dec. 20, and is reported by his two aunts, who have already laid eyes on him, to be the veriest prince of chaps. Given his ancestors, his parents and his siblings, and making allowances for his grandfather, I have no doubt he is. Of course, I have yet to meet the baby, kin to me or not, over whom I haven’t gone all fuzzy. I am a sucker for babies. Even the ones I find myself next to on airplanes.

Thoughts of a child naturally provoke reflections on the ordeal of the little boy in Miami. The Elián González affair seems to be one of those businesses about which one is required to have an opinion. O.K., here’s mine: I think the boy belongs with his father; I wish it could have been handled differently, but maybe it couldn’t. (What do I know?) This is another of those situations in which crucial decisions involving a child have been made by people without children of their own. Among those decisions is always whether to exploit for purposes of one’s own publicity, ratings and personal image. In this, the usual suspects, from Diane Sawyer (childless) to the Clintons (might as well be) behaved predictably: that is to say, disgustingly. Probably because they knew that Ms. Reno would be left holding the can, no matter how things turned out.

The papers are full of Amazon.com’s operating results, good fodder for airliner reflection, especially since Stage 1 of this junket, before I return to Dallas and Michael Joseph Thomas, will be about books. I don’t think the figures mean what they’re being celebrated as meaning, but this is a time when a rainproof parade of naked emperors has trampled underfoot everyone who tried to stand in its path (those tanks in Tienanmen Square could have learned a thing or two from the dot-com crowd), and I leave it to the second-rate likes of James Cramer, intellectually the equivalent of those people who insert themselves into a marathon a mile from the tape and claim to have finished the whole 26 miles, to pick up the chorus. Today, I have better things to think about. Namely, books.

I will be rendezvousing at Dallas-Fort Worth with three of the noblest bookpersons I know: (1) Marcia Carter, co-owner of the great Georgetown bookshop Booked Up, and a dear friend from old Washington days when I decorated [sic] the arm of the extraordinary and beautiful lady who would go on to become, joyously and everlastingly, the wife of R.W.Apple Jr., the best prose stylist in American journalism; (2) my brother Jeffrey, a distinguished San Francisco bookseller; (3) my friend of 30 years, John Saumarez Smith, managing director of Heywood Hill, London (considered by those who know it, to be, quite simply, the greatest general bookstore in the world). The four of us will drive north to Archer City, Texas, to huddle with America’s best all-arounder in the letters department, Larry McMurtry. My three companions will be buying for stock; I’m along to listen, which has me straining at the leash. When I made the pilgrimage to Larry’s “book town” last year, I was just passing through in the course of a search for lost time.

If you get off on books, if your blood races at the prospect of a shelf of well-chosen old and secondhand books, some of which may be gold-gauged treasures, others merely treasurable, you owe yourself a trip to Archer City, a couple of easy hours northwest of DFW. Our meeting goes off-serendipitously-as scheduled; the drive is a piece of cake, and on arrival my companions make a hungry start on the four buildings Larry has filled with well-chosen, intelligently-shelved, fairly-priced stock (always including a few underpriced “sleepers” to keep ‘em coming back for more). I wander here and there, filling in gaps (a couple of Phyllis McGinleys, a near-mint Complete Prose of Marianne Moore , a sine qua non for anyone living in Brooklyn). That evening, after a gracious supper prepared by mine host, we sit on the deck of Larry’s book-lined old house, marveling at the setting North Texas sun, which goes down just as smoothly and beautifully with this teetotaler’s Dr. Pepper as with the more formidable decoctions guzzled by the others. The talk is of books and bookselling and book people; of editors and writing and reading. Talk that’s easy, informed, civilized and full of knowledge and experience, in a place from which the madding crowd is blessedly absent and the Net but a hum beyond the furthest horizon of sentience.

Friday, April 28: Up betimes in my room (“The Hud Library”) at the Lonesome Dove Inn, and then out and about, to watch my renewed and restored companions set upon the shelves like a pride of lionesses upon a herd of wapiti. Within the hour, I find myself on my knees, begging. Book sellers have the eyesight of peregrines, and Marcia has discovered a little book, Sun Hunting (1922) by Kenneth Roberts (of Northwest Passage and Lydia Bailey ), which she shows me with the teasing cruelty that is a talent special to beautiful, intelligent women. I open it and read: “Palm Beach is a long narrow strip of land which is separated from the mainland by a long narrow body of water known as Lake Worth, and by a sudden increase in living expenses. On the mainland side of Lake Worth is the rising young city of West Palm Beach, where one is not afraid-as he usually is in Palm Beach-to offer a storekeeper or a newsboy a nickel lest he should regard it as some strange, unknown foreign coin.”

Plus ça change (adjusting for inflation, of course). I must have this book! I prostrate myself. I throw a tantrum of a childishness that my grandson will not approach in the next two days. At length, Marcia relents, but only when I explain the purpose I may have for this volume, namely as a possible prize for the (to be announced in this space shortly) First Annual Midas Watch Reader Poll to Identify the Biggest Social Climber in the Media. For some time, I have harped on the observation that we live in times when journalists are far too interested in dining with people whom they ought only to be concerned about dining on . It is time to put teeth into this trope: to let readers vent, in (optional) secret ballot via your correspondent’s post office box and e-mail address, their scorn for the self-promoters, publicists’ tools, favor-seekers and puff-ball artists who pass themselves off as journalists; people for whom the only worthwhile values are those disclosed by the seating chart, to whom the highest god is the talk-show booker. Keep an eye on this space for further details.

Eventually Marcia relents; I clasp the quarto to my bosom, and shortly afterward Jeffrey and I take our leave of Archer City and make for Dallas. It’s strange being back in this city in which I lived from 1978 to 1979, where I wrote Green Monda y, where I propounded the Thomas Theory of Cultural Oomph: namely that the cultural vitality of any American city will be in direct inverse measure to the proportionate size of the local Junior League chapter.

Old landmarks are missing, I note. The statue of Cutter Bill, the late (convicted drug smuggler) Rex Cauble’s famous horse, no longer stands atop its pillar beside the Northwest Highway, and University Tower, the office building overlooking North Central Expressway from which I and my partners steered our diverse enterprise straight onto the shoals of insolvency, has had a facelift. Only the Texas School Book Depository seems unchanged, probably because there’s a buck to be made from it.

None of this matters, however. What does, and what I’m sure you will be pleased to learn, is that young Michael Joseph Thomas proves to be every bit and more the swell fellow he’s been cracked up as: large of limb and spirit, with a wise, observant, good-humored air that will stand him in good stead in this slick and sleazy world. Over the next two days, I will spend much time in his immediate vicinity, and find him never less than wonderful company, notwithstanding that his smile betrays his innocence of what the world knows: His grandpop is a curmudgeonly old party poop who just doesn’t get how great it is to be able to be dumb and greedy at the same time-and still get rich.

But I guess you know that without my having to tell you.