Bud Shrake has written sports stories, screenplays, and novels. He’s hobnobbed with the rich and famous, raised some hell, and searched his soul. Now he has crowned a colorful 49-year career with The Borderland.
MORE THAN A MONTH has passed and Bud Shrake is still grumbling about the Austin time line that appeared in the American-Statesman on the eve of the millennium. “Their chronology starts in 1839, when the first land was bought, then jumps to 1847,” Bud says incredulously, fiddling with the medals of Saint Jude and Saint Christopher and the silver arrowhead that he always wears on a chain around his neck. Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, was a gift from his first wife, Joyce. Screenwriter-producer Bill Wittliff, a longtime friend, gave him the arrowhead. Bud bought the Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, in the early sixties in Rome, on a long journey to a place that had no name. A telephone rings in another part of the house, but Bud ignores it and continues to rant about the offending time line. “Look at all the great drama that took place in between! The city was built and the capital of the Republic of Texas moved here from Houston. In 1846, after Texas became a state, there was a big ceremony at the Capitol where they raised the U.S. flag and lowered the Texas flag. Anson Jones was the president then, and Sam Houston was made a U.S. senator. But none of that appeared in the local paper. They seem to think Austin’s history started when they built Palmer Auditorium.”
We are sitting in the family room of Bud’s house in West Lake Hills at a long oak table cluttered with manuscripts, screenplays, magazines, photographs, and golf clubs, all presided over by a huge gray cat named Merlin and a fierce black dog named Feeney. Six feet six, with a genius-level IQ, a highly developed sense of humor, and a personality that can be calculatingly cold and aloof or uncommonly generous and affectionate, sometimes simultaneously, Bud has always been a larger-than-life character. In the words of the Kris Kristofferson song, a poet, a prophet, a preacher — and a problem when he’s stoned. In the early sixties writer Joe David Brown (Stars in My Crown, Paper Moon) told Bud that he must move to New York. “You’re so tall everyone will remember your name,” Brown said. He also advised that every writer should marry a psychiatric nurse. Instead, Bud married a Shakespearean scholar and a Long Island debutante trophy wife, both now long gone from his life.
Since 1978 he has lived alone in this rambling hillside cottage whose uncatalogued decor of the rare, the eccentric, and the bizarre makes it look like a psychedelic secondhand store. A huge painting of a fierce Sonny Liston, which was once a Sports Illustrated cover, glares from one wall. On the screen of a giant television set a golf tournament in Sri Lanka or some other improbable place unfolds silently. Carefully positioned on end tables and in the spare recesses of bookcases are photographs of his children and grandchildren, and one of Joyce, taken when she was about nineteen. Over the years rooms have been added or changed according to Bud’s needs of the moment. An enclosed second deck that was built as his office — it looks exactly like a press box — is now the office of his longtime assistant, Jodi Gent, who helps run Bud’s corporation, East Pole, and like the cat, the dog, and the mementos is a fixture in the house.
When the phone continues to ring, he walks to his present office to answer it and I tag along. It’s a guy from the New York Times, researching an obit for Tom Landry. While Bud talks, my eyes move around this small, dark space that used to be a guest room, stopping at a sign that says “The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug — Mark Twain.” Near it is a thirty-year-old photograph of the two of us, Bud wearing a fez and me in a World War I doughboy helmet. Bud and I have been close and fast friends since 1956, when we were rival police reporters in Fort Worth, and have shared adventures and sometimes apartments between marriages. In the weeks leading up to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, our apartment just north of downtown Dallas was a regular stop for denizens of the late night, including nightclub owner Jack Ruby and his star stripper, Jada.
The walls of Bud’s office are layered with posters, book jackets, old newspaper headlines — “Richards Elected Governor” — and photographs of Austin landmarks like the late, lamented Armadillo World Headquarters and of old pals like Dan Jenkins, Darrell Royal, Willie Nelson, and Don Meredith. A number of watercolors by Blackie Sherrod, the peerless sports editor, as well as one of Bud’s own oil paintings, hang about, and there is a small altar with the Virgin of Guadalupe and a Buddha. Messages and slogans are taped to the frame of his word processor: “The future ain’t what it used to be,” “Stay Zen,” “Keep typing,” “We’re lost, but we’re making good time.” When he hangs up, I ask what he told the guy. “I told him that Landry always took the time to answer my questions, no matter how stupid they were.”
The carelessly edited time line in the American-Statesman had put him in a foul mood and I knew why. I had just finished reading an advance copy of Bud’s latest novel, The Borderland, a rip-roaring adventure that will be published by Hyperion this month. It takes place in the settlement of Austin in the nine months from January through September 1839, when Congress Avenue was little more than a spring-fed creek, Indians camped along Shoal Creek, and the Colorado River at flood stage was more than a mile wide. The Republic of Texas was three years old and in desperate shape. Mirabeau Lamar and his War Party knew that by moving the capital to Austin they were inviting war with the Comanche, whose territory began at the Colorado and spread hundreds of miles through the Hill Country and beyond. War was precisely Lamar’s intent. He believed that the Republic’s rightful border was Santa Fe, or maybe the Pacific Ocean. The only way to open up all those millions of acres to speculation was by drawing the Comanche into a war. The Borderland ends with the bloody massacre of Indians at Plum Creek, near Lockhart.
The real reason Bud was pissed was that it had taken him twenty years to appreciate the drama. He had started working on this book in 1979, after he quit Sports Illustrated. It took him years to write and research the novel, which was called “Plum Creek” in the original draft, and it took some moron editor fifteen minutes to reject it, with the terse observation, “Nobody wants to read about Texas.” Not long after that, Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove and James Michener’s Texas became best-sellers. Frustrated and burned out, Bud dumped the manuscript in the bottom of a trunk and forgot it, or tried to. The only person who continued to believe in the book was his friend Wittliff, who was in the process of creating the magnificent television version of Lonesome Dove. From time to time Wittliff would ask Bud when he planned to finish “Plum Creek,” and Bud would tell him, “Never!”
Then one night in the early summer of 1996, the story began to rewrite itself. Bud was sitting on his balcony, looking across the Colorado to Austin, lamenting the scars and follies of a generation of developers and their monuments to greed and ego. In the days of the Comancheria (Comanche territory), he reminded himself, a chief might have sat in this same location, looking southwest toward Barton Creek, the Comanche’s Palm Springs. In 1839 he would have seen hundreds of white people pouring into his valley with mule carts, lumber, and building tools. What would he have thought?
A few weeks later, vacationing with Dan and June Jenkins at a golf club in North Carolina, Bud wrote what is now the book’s opening scene. Four Comanche chiefs sit around a twig fire in a cave on the west bank of the Colorado, looking across the river at “the shapes of a stockade fence and rooftops, the newest outrage by the invaders,” discussing the inevitable battle.
“The Borderland is a real reach,” says Wittliff, who read every successive draft. “He took some wonderful chances — and delivered.” Ann Richards, another old friend, who has been “going steady” with Bud since 1989, remembers that he was writing on his laptop when they were vacationing in Jamaica during Christmas, 1998. She asked him what was happening in the story and he told her, “Today a guy and his sister camped and there was a rifle shot. I don’t know who fired it or why.” A few days later he wrote a scene in which Lamar’s troops massacre a settlement of peaceful Cherokees.
Fiction writers deal routinely with the fate of their characters but are often blindsided by their own destinies. The Borderland started as the story of the battle of Plum Creek and evolved into what Bud half-jokingly calls a story “about Austin in the days when real estate developers wore their guns outside their pants.” And though this was never his intention, The Borderland could be read as a prequel to another Shrake novel, Blessed McGill. Published in 1968, it begins in Austin just before the Civil War and recounts the adventures of a hard-drinking, irreverent frontiersman and how he got to be our first North American saint. Blessed McGill, in turn, can be viewed as a prequel to Bud’s first published novel, Blood Reckoning, written more than forty years ago. Blood Reckoning is a fictional account of the Comanche’s final battle against the U.S. Army, which was a continuation of the battle of Plum Creek, which is the climactic scene of The Borderland. While he himself was moving forward, Bud’s imagination was actually working back in time, searching for larger truths about God and man, and perhaps trying to solve the riddle of his own life.
Bud was 27 when he began working on Blood Reckoning in the secrecy of his kitchen in the dead of night, between the hours of three and five. He and I were both young sportswriters for the Dallas Times-Herald, living with our wives and children in an apartment complex near the SMU campus. Joyce taught English literature at SMU and was becoming increasingly devoted to Catholicism. In those days all self-respecting sportswriters were expected to have an unfinished novel and a pint of Old Crow in their desk drawer, but nobody was expected to write in the middle of the night. Bud struggled out of bed at that ungodly hour, I discovered later, not because he believed that writing was his destiny (though he suspected it was) but because he needed the money to support Joyce and their two sons. Three to five was his only spare time.
Poverty and deadlines are said to be a writer’s two motivators, but I’ll submit that the agony of love ought to be added to the list. Bud was feeling the crush of all those motivators in 1960. His marriage to Joyce was floundering — again. They had married and divorced when they were students at TCU in 1953, a pivotal year in Bud’s life. The previous summer, after his sophomore year at the University of Texas, he had returned to his hometown of Fort Worth broke and expecting his Army reserve unit to go to Korea. His long-range plan was to attend UT law school, but fate intervened. Jenkins, his old pal from Paschal High School and a fellow student at TCU in the early fifties, had landed a job writing about sports at the Fort Worth Press and introduced Bud to Blackie Sherrod. For Bud, it was love at first sight. “The minute I walked into that old Press building on Fifth and Jones and heard the Teletype machines, I knew that this was where I belonged,” he remembers. Under Blackie’s spell, a phenomenon that would eventually affect Jenkins and me too, Bud’s literary talents began to flower. “If I hadn’t been Dan’s pal and met Blackie,” Bud says now, “I’d probably have been a lawyer.”
In 1958, three years after Bud and Joyce remarried, Sherrod moved to the Dallas Times-Herald, taking Bud with him. By the early sixties Sherrod had added Jenkins and me to his staff. Prima donnas all, we saw ourselves as fledgling Hemingways. “I knew I could never write like Dostoevski or Dickens or Thomas Mann,” Bud says, “but Hemingway made it look easy. Hemingway is like a Matisse painting that you look at and say, ‘I can do that.’ Well, of course you can’t paint like Matisse, any more than you can write like Hemingway, but they don’t overwhelm you at first sight.” As had been the case at the Press, the Times-Herald under Sherrod was the perfect training ground. Blackie set the tone with his irreverent, cold-eyed humor and mastery of the language, and he cultivated our talents as patiently and craftily as a Zen master, allowing us ridiculous amounts of freedom to make our own mistakes. We wrote to and for each other — not merely sports pieces but satires, parodies, and epic poems that were assembled in a fat volume called “The Pinch Papers” (allegedly the work of a made-up sportswriter named Jim Tom Pinch, who later appeared as a character in several Jenkins novels). The results were wild and occasionally wonderful. Bud once began a story about a junior track meet with this unforgettable sentence: “This is no golden legend, this is the plain unvarnished tale of youth.”
After about a year in Dallas, Bud and Joyce were again having marital trouble. Part of it was the hard drinking and erratic existence that sportswriters in those days believed necessary to their profession. While he was finishing Blood Reckoning, Bud was covering the Dallas Cowboys, which required hanging out with club owner Clint Murchison, Jr., and other Dallas high rollers. The rich and famous were always drawn into Bud’s irresistible gravitational field. Among Murchison’s coterie were Miami millionaire Dick Fincher, his actress wife, Gloria DeHaven, and two raucous priests, fathers Higgins and Mulligan, who traveled to all the Cowboy games with Fincher. The priests took a keen interest in Bud, and vice versa. “I was fascinated by their contrasts of life,” Bud remembers. “They got up every morning at four to pray and work in their gardens and live the monastic life. Then on weekends they’d get drunk as pigs and argue religion with guys like me.” Higgins constantly advised Bud to “stop kicking against the bricks” — a phrase that appeared in Blessed McGill seven or eight years later. Bud had his own notions about God and faith. Though raised in Fort Worth’s Travis Avenue Baptist Church, he had intellectually rejected the churchgoing experience years earlier. Whatever the truth about salvation, Bud believed that artistic genius was the great absolution of wretched behavior.
Joyce was a Shakespearean scholar and a true intellectual. “Half the time I didn’t know what she was talking about,” Bud confesses. “But I knew that Joyce knew.” She was beautiful, sexy, and brilliant, but also temperamental and dangerously vulnerable. You were never sure where you stood with Joyce. Later, under her professional name, Dr. Joyce Rogers, she wrote a book exploring an anomaly in Shakespeare’s will, which left his second-best bed to his widow. The Second Best Bed: Shakespeare’s Will in a New Light is undoubtedly a work of superlative scholarship, but for most of us it was unreadable. It was a metaphor for the constantly expanding universe that was separating Joyce from the recognizable world. Her Catholic faith was at times obsessive, as though she was on a vector toward sainthood. A second divorce seemed inevitable, though I never imagined that the publication of Bud’s first book would hasten it along.
To his surprise, not one but two publishers submitted offers for Blood Reckoning. He chose the larger of the two, a $3,000 advance from Bantam, which was double what the prestigious hardback publisher Harper and Row was willing to pay. With the difference, Bud bought a spectacularly gaudy status symbol, a used four-door white Cadillac El Dorado. Joyce hated the Cadillac and refused to ride in it. “It embarrasses her,” Bud told me at the time. “She’s afraid her friends at SMU will see it.” I never knew what Joyce thought of Blood Reckoning. I’m sure she was pleased that Bud had published, but the content may have disgusted her: The book is rich with the savagery and redemption that have become hallmarks of Bud’s fiction. Jay Milner, a friend and colleague of ours, noted in a review that on the first page there were three shootings, a rape, and an Indian who pissed in a water well. Jay dubbed the book “Bloody, I Reckon.”
As Bud celebrated success, Joyce sank deeper into the mystic transfiguration of Catholicism. She desperately wanted to be remarried in the Catholic Church, and in 1960 Bud finally agreed. He took instruction and signed an agreement that their sons, Creagan and Ben, would be raised Catholic. Because of the divorce in 1953, the marriage took place in the church rectory rather than the sanctuary (a similar scene appears in The Borderland). Waiting for the service to begin, Bud smoked and fidgeted. When it was time to step up to the altar, he looked for a place to stub his cigarette and spotted a cup of water — holy water, he realized too late. The normally faint sizzle of an extinguishing cigarette echoed in this instance like a fireball rolling down the corridors of hell. “I knew as soon as I’d done it — we all knew — that this marriage was doomed,” he says.
By this time Bud had left the Times-Herald to write the lead sports column for the Dallas Morning News. On Christmas Eve, in one last gesture toward saving his marriage, he arrived home with a turkey and presents under his arm and the keys to a new sports car for Joyce. “Here’s your Christmas present,” he chirped merrily, handing her the keys to a black Karmann Ghia. “And here’s your present,” Joyce replied, smiling beatifically and indicating his suitcases, which she had thoughtfully packed.
We had kidded Bud unmercifully about buying the Cadillac, but as things turned out, he had demonstrated great foresight. After Joyce filed for divorce, Bud lived in the Cadillac for several months, sometimes spending the night in the Dallas Morning News parking lot.
Some years later, while she was teaching at the University of New Mexico, Joyce went to Rome and petitioned the College of Cardinals to annul her marriage to Bud. She died of an asthma attack in 1994. The night of her memorial service, Bud told me recently, his children and grandchildren surrounded him in the parking lot and asked him to bless the family. The request stopped him cold. “I felt a thousand years old,” he told me. “But I realized then that I had become our family’s senior person, and I said some words while we stood holding hands.”
It’s all grist for the mill. the title of Bud’s second novel, But Not for Love, is drawn from Shakespeare’s prophetic admonition in As You Like It: “men have died from time to time and worms have eaten them, but not for love.” The TCU Press selected it as the book that best captures Fort Worth in the sixties and will return it to print this fall. A tamer version of the novel’s birthday party scene, in which the revelers strip to their underwear in a game of “naked bridge,” actually happened at Dan and June Jenkins’ home in Fort Worth. Nobody noticed it at the time, but the ladies and gentlemen with losing hands ditched their clothes in front of a large picture window just across the lawn from the house where Dan’s mother and grandmother lived. A few days later Dan’s ladylike grandmother smiled nicely and asked Bud and Dan, “Who was that basketball team you-all were entertaining the other night?” We all knew that life was merely material for a novel, but as Dan says, “Bud knew it first.”
Bud wrote But Not for Love just before he moved to New York to work for Sports Illustrated in 1964; Jenkins had joined the SI staff two years earlier. He wrote it on his old Smith Corona Skywriter portable, riding trains around Europe, getting off in city after city, and finally stopping for a few months in Frankfurt at the apartment of Dick Growald, another Paschal friend, who was then the boss of all European bureaus for United Press International. During his stay in Rome, Bud had had what might be called a religious experience. Reading of the canonization of Mother Cabrini, he realized that there had not been a North American saint before her. That started him thinking about a plot in which five Texans travel to Rome for the canonization of just such a saint. He began writing the book a few months later, in his New York apartment. He had a great title — “These Happy Occasions” — but about two hundred pages into the first draft, he hit a wall. “Wait a minute,” he thought. “Who is this saint? He/she has to be Catholic and has to come from the oldest part of the country, the Southwest.” “I started writing about the saint,” he remembers, “and after fifty pages, I threw away ‘These Happy Occasions’ and began writing Blessed McGill.”
If Bud hadn’t survived to write The Borderland, his magnum opus would be Blessed McGill. It’s the story of a most un-Christlike man, Peter Hermano McGill (1850-83), who at the end gives his life in a Christlike act that saves the Taos pueblo and mission. To a lesser degree it’s the story of two raucous, hard-drinking Franciscans, fathers Higgins and Mulligan, who use McGill’s death for their own cynical purposes. Though it’s a great adventure tale and a historically accurate account of the brutal life of the nineteenth-century Southwest, the themes of life, death, and salvation are the book’s foundation. Raised a Catholic by his beautiful, educated, cultured mother, who becomes so obsessed by religion that she eventually cuts off all contact with the outside world (guess who?), McGill develops his own theories about God and religion. He lives at times with Indian tribes and wears around his neck a silver chain with medals of Our Lady and Saint Jude as well as a lion’s tooth given to him by his boyhood friend and eventual murderer, a Lipan Apache outlaw named Octavio. Because of McGill’s miraculous ability to escape from life-threatening situations, the Indians regard him as a prophet, a man who “refuses to die.” They believe that Jesus Christ is one of many sons of the Sure Enough Father and that after death a good warrior goes to a country beyond the setting sun where the horses are fast, the hunting is fine, and there is no war, darkness, or sorrow. McGill sees much merit in this belief, but the two Franciscans are dead set on converting the savages — and him too. McGill enjoys drinking and talking religion with the priests, and ignores Higgins’ warnings to “stop kicking against the bricks.” Nevertheless, when the outlaw Octavio shows up to settle an old score with him, threatening to destroy the mission and pueblo unless he surrenders, McGill realizes that his fate is sealed. After his death, Higgins convinces the Vatican that McGill died as a Christian martyr, refusing Octavio’s offer to spare his life if he would renounce the divinity of Christ.
BUD’S NEW YORK APARTMENT, AT Sixteenth Street and Fifth Avenue, was always full of interesting and famous people and often the scene of the kind of heroic revelry that makes great literature. One of the grander occasions was the Saturday night before the December 1965 Cowboys-Giants game, when Don Meredith challenged Bud and literary man-about-town George Plimpton to a pissing contest — off the third-floor balcony. “We stood on the rail and Meredith was fantastic,” recalls Plimpton. “He damn near reached the opposite curb.” Several couples from Texas shacked up at Bud’s apartment, though not always with their spouses. The fabled Billy Lee Brammer was writer-in-residence for a time, persuading his editors to give him a new advance on a long-unfinished novel called “Fustian Days” by arranging great stacks of paper on the floor in a way that suggested he had fifty chapters outlined.
Jenkins and Shrake pretty much owned New York in those days, or so it seemed to me. Their evening routine started at a bar just down West Fiftieth Street from the Time-Life Building where Sports Illustrated editor André Laguerre held court each evening from five until seven-thirty. Most of SI’s important business was conducted at the bar. One evening Laguerre turned to Bud and said, “I wonder what’s happening to all those sporting facilities in the Far East now that the British are pulling out of the Suez Canal?” Soon Bud was off on a three-month tour of the sporting facilities of the Far East. Each night at seven, half an hour before Laguerre’s limo driver was to arrive, the great man would start his countdown. He would order a final Scotch, followed by a grand final, then el ultimo, and finally a drink he called El Shrako, at which time the driver had orders to grab Laguerre and whisk him off to his Upper East Side apartment. Jenkins and Shrake would work their way over to Toots Shor’s, then uptown to P. J. Clarke’s, and finally to Elaine’s, setting consumption records and strewing havoc along the way. One night at Shor’s, Frank Sinatra sidled up to Bud and began talking about his hobby, photography. Bud got the brilliant idea to hire Sinatra to shoot the upcoming Floyd Patterson-Eddie Machen fight in Stockholm for SI. When Laguerre learned the following morning what Bud had done, he chuckled and approved the project.
Blessed McGill is dedicated to André Laguerre.
In 1979, at age 48, Bud quit Sports Illustrated to pursue a career in Hollywood — not a terribly wise thing to do, he acknowledged recently. He had published two more novels, Strange Peaches, set in Dallas at the time of the Kennedy assassination, and Peter Arbiter, a satire about social misfits. Neither of the books had made much money, at least compared with the money being handed out in Hollywood. A few weeks after leaving SI, Bud was on the Left Coast, working on the screenplay Tom Horn for actor Steve McQueen and living with Don and Susan Meredith at their house in Beverly Hills.
The seventies and early eighties were a time of spiritual reawakening as well as wretched excess for Bud and a group of hell-raisers known as the Mad Dogs. Old friends suspected that Bud was a deeply religious man, not in the sense of an organized religion but in the sense of looking for a larger meaning. On trips to Mexico I noticed that he liked to sit alone in cathedrals. One day I asked him why. “I look at the devout and wonder where their faith comes from,” he told me. “But I also wonder about that unworldly feeling that I get; where does that come from?” Bud got himself ordained as a doctor of metaphysics in the Universal Life Church by sending a $100 donation to a mail-order house in New Jersey. While the title carried no official weight, Bud accorded it a degree of respect and so did those of us in his circle. He officiated at the weddings of several friends, including Hollywood producer Craig Baumgarten. In 1975, in a backroom of the Texas Chili Parlor in Austin, he wrote and read the vows that united Phyllis and me. A woman from the Travis County clerk’s office telephoned a few days later for clarification, asking if it was true that we had been married by a Reverend Shrake from the Universal Life Church. Told that it was, she duly recorded the marriage, and 26 years later it remains as valid as the Law of Abraham.
Bud’s second marriage, to a young, beautiful, and high-spirited Long Island debutante named Doatsy Sedlmayr, lasted nearly fourteen years but proved as turbulent and ultimately as doomed as his years with Joyce. Doatsy was a fact checker at SI when they met and was swept away by the famous, handsome author and his tales of a wild and wonderful place called Austin. They moved there in 1967, to a house in West Lake Hills that soon became the scene of endless parties and debaucheries. Musicians such as Jerry Jeff Walker and sports figures such as former Cowboy Pete Gent were in and out at all hours. Benders commonly lasted several days and nights, and sometimes the better part of a week. I remember dimly the occasion of Hunter Thompson’s visit: I fell out after about 27 hours, the reputedly insatiable Dr. Thompson folded 10 or 12 hours later, and Bud and Jerry Jeff were still on the town the morning of the fourth day.
Doatsy left him several times, but the separations were usually brief. Looking back, I think the marriage began to fall apart irrevocably during the filming of his screenplay Kid Blue, which was shot on location in Durango, Mexico. For three months assorted Mad Dogs mingled with the cast and crew in an orgy that blurred reality and twisted relationships. The Shrakes stopped speaking, and Doatsy split for Austin. Though Kid Blue became a cult favorite, it was a financial disaster that almost wrecked Dennis Hopper’s career and so disillusioned producer Marvin Schwartz that he quit the business and joined a Buddhist monastery in Nepal.
In 1985 Bud learned that he had diabetes. He stopped drinking and smoking and started playing golf again, with typical obsessive-compulsive abandon. Some days he played ten or twelve hours. Bud has an almost spiritual connection to golf, as though the game is part of his birthright, and in those bleak and bloodless days this obviously sustained him. The experience of writing “Plum Creek,” and having it rejected, had drained his energy. “I couldn’t imagine writing without a cigarette burning nearby,” he confesses, “and without knowing that I would go swimming in cocktails at the end of the day.”
After a time Bud set himself a test: to write a novel without a cigarette or a drink — or a single mention of Texas. He began to write Night Never Falls, a story about a hard-drinking American journalist named Harry Sparrow who leaves a comfortable life in London to write about the French war in Indochina. “It was a struggle in moment-to-moment reality,” Bud told me later, “but I wrote it without drinking or smoking.” He did fail one part of the test, however. Flipping through the finished book, he realized that he had made an offhand reference to the Alamo.
He wrote other movies throughout the eighties, most notably his fine original screenplay of Songwriter, which starred Willie Nelson. As-told-to autobiographies of Willie and football coach Barry Switzer paid well and kept the Shrake name alive. But the work that finally recharged his career was Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, which he co-wrote for love, not money. Though his agent predicted it wouldn’t sell 10 copies, the Little Red Book sold 1.6 million, more than all of his previous books combined, and eventually he co-authored three other Penick books. Together they have sold about 3 million in hardback and are now in paperback. “I think people fell in love with Harvey because he tried to live his life by doing unto others as he would wish to be done unto,” Bud explains.
Harvey taught Bud to reconsider the Golden Rule, and the lesson led him back to the battle of Plum Creek and his rendezvous with destiny.
At 68 Bud has hit the literary equivalent of a grand slam. The Borderland is the work of a naturally gifted writer who has honed his skills and instincts, marshaled his courage, and scaled the peak of maturity. “Blessed McGill was a quartet,” Bill Wittliff says. “The Borderland is a symphony.” Lee Cullum, an author and a columnist for the Dallas Morning News, wrote that the novel is “an epic laced with magical realism that’s equal to Edna Ferber’s Giant and the best of Larry McMurtry.”
It is really two books, a straight-on dramatization of an unexplored chapter of Texas history and an allegory of good and evil. Characters like Lamar and Sam Houston are drawn close to historical fact. Since this is a work of fiction, Bud takes some license with characters like Texas Ranger captain Matthew Caldwell, the real-life hero of the battle of Plum Creek, and he condenses some of the historical events in time and invents other actions and people to carry the story beyond the facts. But the narrative is true to the spirit of the times.
The allegory of good and evil works on another level, one where the Reverend Shrake, doctor of metaphysics, prevails. The borderland of the author’s imagination is “the very edge between white civilization and the unknown, between reality and the fantastical …” Everything beyond the borderland — which is to say the Comancheria — was a realm that was as mysterious then as outer space is now. Several wonderful characters live with one foot in the world of magical realism. An Austin entrepreneur named Gruber, for instance, goes about his business with a Comanche axe sunk in his skull. The novel’s strangest character is a Man-Ape who lives in a cave west of the Colorado and is the sole guardian of the “final wisdom.”
“How the hell did you come up with a character like the Man-Ape?” I ask Bud. “Too much dope?”
“This is hard for me to explain,” he admits. “In my mind, he is a Neanderthal or some other branch of the evolutionary tree that was wiped out during the passing of time. Why? Because his civilization didn’t practice the Golden Rule. That may well be the reason our own species ceases to exist.”
If The Borderland sells, Bud may write a sequel. Otherwise, he has plenty of work to keep him busy. He is collaborating on a play with Michael Rudman, a highly successful stage director who was born in Dallas but has lived and worked in London for nearly forty years. They hope to stage the play, a comedy called Benchmark, in London later this year. Meanwhile, Limo, a book that he co-authored with Jenkins in 1976, will soon be reprinted.
As for another marriage, forget about it. “Ann and I love each other and enjoy being together,” Bud says, “but neither of us wants to get married again. We live very different lives. She travels constantly, working, making speeches, taking her kids on holidays to China and Peru. I’m not so keen on traveling anymore, but I go with her now and then. I can imagine that we may live together somewhere down the road, and we intend to grow old together.”
And of course he reserves the option to write about it.