The Book of Elmer
Weighing the legacy of West Texas's patron saint of cowboy literature.
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Texas Christian University Press, long the hub of Elmer Kelton hagiography, has just released its newest paterikon, Elmer Kelton: Essays and Memories ($19.95), a collection of pieces written in honor of the beloved West Texas author, who died nearly two years ago. Among the memories are those of the Reverend Ricky Burk, senior pastor of the First United Methodist Church of San Angelo. Reverend Burk’s “Eulogy” draws upon Kelton’s own account in Sandhills Boy of his obscure origins. Born not quite in a manger but in a place called Horse Camp, in Andrews County, Baby Elmer arrived “prematurely, and his mother kept him in a shoebox, often in the oven, in order to help him survive those first perilous weeks.”
As with all saints, early physical impediments influenced the shape of the life to come. Young Kelton never felt comfortable around horses, and his severe nearsightedness led him to wear glasses and adopt a monkish devotion to books—and the Book. Near the end of his life, Kelton explained to Reverend Burk that he had made peace with God a long time ago and rested firmly in the “assurance of his salvation.” The good reverend extends his ecclesiastical approbation to Elmer’s lifework: “When you opened a Kelton novel you knew it would be clean enough for any member of the family to read, always historically accurate, and inspirational.” To complete the saintly portrait, the reverend speaks of Kelton’s character and its effect upon his admirers: “His readers loved him—a gentle, unassuming, humble man always willing to talk to anyone, sign a stack of books, or offer advice to would-be writers.”
For Kelton, to live was to write, and he had the Protestant work ethic in spades. Besides toiling as a journalist for 42 years, he churned out more than sixty novels, most of them formula pulp paperbacks. It was as a writer of “literary westerns,” however, that he staked a larger claim. Kelton acolytes cite six of these as major, and the one for which the best case can be made is The Time It Never Rained, which traces the actions of a proud Texas rancher named Charlie Flagg, who struggles to endure the biblical-style drought that devastated Texas agriculture in the fifties. Though Kelton nails the mundane details of ranch life, the book is too full of cornpone aphorisms—“Treat the land right and it’ll take care of you,” “A boy don’t get to be a man with clean britches on”—to deserve its renown.
In estimations of Kelton’s writing, however, faith outruns reason. In an oft-quoted spurt of enthusiasm, the western aficionado Jon Tuska called The Time It Never Rained “one of the dozen or so best novels written by an American in [the twentieth] century.” Think about that for a minute. Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dreiser, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Mailer, Pynchon, Updike, Bellow, Wharton, Morrison, Warren, Ellison, DeLillo—that’s fifteen authors right there, and there is no way that Kelton belongs in that company. But Tuska was hardly alone in his adoration. In 1995 the Western Writers of America declared Kelton to be the greatest western writer of all time. Willa Cather, the author of My Ántonia, A Lost Lady, and Death Comes for the Archbishop, finished second. I think we can all agree that Kelton was certainly the greatest western writer of all time named Elmer.
I knew Kelton slightly and liked him well enough. We ran into each other at conferences and such over the years. Being on a panel with him was always restful, because the audience was only interested in what he had to say. At group book signings, his fans lined up for the authentication, the signing of the latest book—and there was always a latest book—while the rest of us slumped in our chairs, listless and ignored. West Texans loved him, and over the years I became convinced that he had met and shaken hands with every person who lived between the Balcones Fault and the New Mexico border. I expected them to start bringing people with twitches and boils and arthritic ailments for him to lay hands upon.
What made Kelton so beloved in West Texas? It didn’t hurt that, in person, he channeled Jesus as a good old boy. He was always polite, mild-mannered, nice as pie. His novels, too, were as homely as gyp water, free of all impurities sexual and otherwise; you’ll find no dating of livestock in Kelton’s world. He was a shining exemplar of the last gasp of the genteel tradition in Texas writing. There’s a line running from J. Frank Dobie and Walter Prescott Webb straight to Kelton (who once said that he memorized Dobie); what they all have in common is an insistence on keeping it historical and not hysterical. Other writers who’ve taken on West Texas—Jim Thompson, Larry McMurtry, Cormac McCarthy—offer excitement and risk-taking that’s entirely absent from Kelton’s oeuvre. But West Texans are loyal only to Kelton. He wasn’t just a Texan, he was the right kind of Texan, as are his protagonists. In The Time It Never Rained, Charlie Flagg stubbornly refuses to take a dime from a federal handout program. His rock-ribbed self-reliance taps into one of West Texas’s most deeply cherished beliefs about itself.
The contributors to Elmer Kelton, which was edited by Judy Alter and James Ward Lee, set themselves to exploring the manifold miracles of their subject’s accomplishments. Essay after essay tries to prove that Kelton is an important writer. Aristotle, Horace, Juvenal, Swift, and other worthies far from West Texas are invoked to elevate his standing. He would have been much more comfortable, I expect, with Luke Short and Andy Adams, although when one interviewer compared The Time It Never Rained to the Book of Job, Kelton did not demur. The critics gathered here praise his plain style, his authentic sense of place, and—rather astoundingly—his ability to create minority characters. Any impartial reading of Kelton’s work would have to conclude that his depictions of Mexican Americans, African Americans, Native American Americans, and Women Americans of any stripe were little more than cardboard stereotypes. He couldn’t do villains either. Bankers are bad, and the main target of derision in The Good Old Boys is a blowhard named Fat Gervin (who marries the banker’s daughter). Cowboys and ranchers were Kelton’s true métier, and he did the honorable work of cutting them down to human size. As he loved to say in a line that always produced laughter: “Louis L’Amour’s heroes are seven feet tall and invincible; mine are five-eight and nervous.”
In Texas writing the final sanctification is a damned statue. There’s one of Dobie, Webb, and Roy Bedichek in Austin; of Katherine Anne Porter in San Antonio (at SeaWorld, of all places); and one of John Graves in San Marcos. Now there’s going to be one of Kelton in San Angelo. In the decades to come, the statue will, I suspect, prove sturdier than Kelton’s reputation among all but the truest believers.
Textra credit: What else we’re reading this month
The Storm at the Door, Stefan Merrill Block (Random House, $25). Young Plano novelist follows up his acclaimed debut, The Story of Forgetting.
The Last Gunfight, Jeff Guinn (Simon & Schuster, $27). Fort Worth author of Bonnie & Clyde biography examines the famous duel at the OK Corral.
Windows on the World, Andrea White (Namelos, $9.95). The first book in a middle-school science fiction trilogy, by the former first lady of Houston.