Pissing off the porch seemed like the perfect metaphor for his chosen profession until one night last January, when John Graves was heading outside to relieve himself and fell down the stairs. His longtime friend Bill Wittliff had warned him this might happen. No bones were broken, but there resulted some impressive damage to his internals and his sense of dignity. After three trips to the hospital and a surgery to repair his prostate, he was still hobbling about on his cane four months later when I visited him at his home outside Glen Rose, southwest of Fort Worth, on the spread he calls Hard Scrabble.
“He’s back there, working,” said his wife, Jane, as she opened the kitchen door for me, and the way she tweaked the word “working” carried with it the question, What else would you expect? She pointed to a door at the back—or was it the front?—of the house. It’s hard to get a fix on the Graves homestead, which appears to have three or maybe four front doors and I don’t know how many porches. The house rambles topsy-turvy on so many levels and in so many directions that you’re never sure whether to step up or down. The word that springs to mind is “homemade.” Every fieldstone, wooden plank, sheet of tin, and length of pipe carries John’s fingerprints. Out back is a toolshed; an old lean-to where the pet goat Door Bell used to dwell when the Graveses’ two girls, Helen and Sally, were small; and a weathered barn where John stored bales of hay when he still raised livestock.
The house is the centerpiece of nearly four hundred acres of rough limestone cedar country that John bought in 1960 with part of the proceeds from his masterful first book, Goodbye to a River. It sits on a hillside above White Bluff Creek, which flows into the Paluxy River, which in turn empties into that stretch of the Brazos that John immortalized in the book. Though it was an instant classic and hailed the coming of a major new talent, his publisher, Alfred Knopf, despaired when he heard that John was buying this piece of land. “There goes his next book,” Knopf’s wife, Blanche, groused. Their experience had been that when a writer gets interested in a piece of land, he stops being a writer, at least for a considerable time. Her fears were well-founded. It was fourteen years before John mailed off his second book, which he called Hard Scrabble: Observations on a Patch of Land, a loving meditation on this spread of rocks, cedar, and rushing creeks. “Hardscrabble” indicates a piece of land that approaches but does not completely measure up to useless. It’s the kind of place that only a writer could love and make work. Fortunately, John, who turns ninety this month, is a born writer, one of the best our state has ever produced. “If I hadn’t wasted so much time building and chasing cows,” he confesses, “I could have written a whole lot more. But what the hell, that’s how it was.”
It has now been fifty years since John published Goodbye to a River and bought Hard Scrabble. Blanche Knopf may have been right; maybe we would have had more books had he spent the past half-century living in Fort Worth, watering the lawn and walking his dogs around the block. I doubt they would have been as good as the ones he did write, but it doesn’t matter anyway. In Hard Scrabble, John writes that the place “had me,” and I suspect that it’s always been with a strong grip. His writing life seems to be an organic extension of this hostile soil, and his attempts to put his feelings for it into prose form a type of love song. Whether he shaped it or it shaped him is a matter of no great concern.
I’ve known John Graves for thirty-something years but hadn’t seen him in some time. He’d been on my mind, though. Whenever the trivial pulse of contemporary life gets to be too much for me, I tend to think of John, who measures contentment in direct proportion to the time it takes him to reach an interstate or a shopping center. His deep streak of contrariness rejects that which obsesses most people, the grasping at fame, fortune, and a view of the eighteenth fairway, and for some time, I’d been feeling a strong pull in his direction. As I traveled the back roads to Hard Scrabble, leaving that buzzing world behind me mile by mile, I realized that just breathing this air was a rejuvenating sensation I’d been in danger of losing.
I was mildly alarmed, therefore, to find John looking so frail. He was thin and bent, fragile as a leaf. His trademark horn-rim glasses kept sliding down his nose, but that familiar twinkle of mischief was still backlighting his right eye—the left one has been glassy blank as long as I’ve known him, victim of a Japanese grenade on the island of Saipan in World War II. Tiny pieces of metal remain buried over his right eye, under one knee, and in his back.
“I’m still here,” he said cheerfully, inviting me into his present-day office, a large room in the oldest part of the house. The walls are covered with shelves of books on every subject you’re likely to think of. Propped on the mantel of a huge fireplace is an old photograph of John fishing for tarpon in the Florida Keys. John told me he no longer uses the fireplace for fear of disturbing a family of swifts that nests in its chimney when the weather is warm. The outside door—he still calls it “the front door”—leads to the porch where he fell while peeing. John is working on a new book about “defunct friends and World War II,” working not on the old upright typewriter that was retired some time ago to Wittliff’s Southwestern Writers