In the early sixties Shelby Hearon, a Kentucky transplant, started writing novels at a rapid rate and hasn’t slowed down since. In fact, her fifteenth, Ella in Bloom (Knopf), is due out this month. Most of her stories offer portraits of women who are witty, educated, and sensual: They all seem like Junior League dropouts. My favorite work is 1978’s A Prince of a Fellow, which depicts a complex post-frontier society in which the old ways compete with newfangled ones and women’s voices emerge to challenge those of the patriarchs. I also like it because of its evocation of recognizable Texas sites and its intriguing connection with Texas literature.
Set in Prince Solms, a fictionalized version of New Braunfels, the novel places its narrator-heroine, Avery Krause, in such familiar settings as the River Walk in San Antonio and the Admiral Nimitz Hotel in Sophienburg (Fredericksburg). Like everybody in the novel, Avery is pretending to be someone she isn’t. A “third-rate princess,” she has tried unsuccessfully to secure the hand of a prince and struggles to define herself apart from the values of her tradition-bound mother, a heavy Swedish woman who has spent a lifetime cooking and trying to bear a son. Avery works at Pasture Radio, a two-bit local station where her on-air sidekick is a Mexican American who pretends to be a German. She is having a dead-end affair with an affable burgher buffoon who happens to be the mayor of San Antonio.
A new frog enters Avery’s life in the form of Gruene Albrech, the pen name of a young writer who has taken up residence at the famed Paisano Ranch, the former haunt of J. Frank Dobie where each year Paisano Fellows spend blessed hours writing in subsidized solitude. Gruene is based on Jan Reid, who indeed went on to publish the Paisano-inspired novel Deerinwater and write for Texas Monthly (where he is currently a contributing editor). For the interested scholar, some of the letters Hearon wrote to Reid are part of the Southwestern Writers Collection at Southwest Texas State University, in San Marcos.
But Gruene, it turns out, is pretending too. The young author presents himself as a Czech returning to his roots, but in reality he is a man of German extraction who is trying to cope with some dark, violent family secrets. Gruene invites Avery on a couple of short research trips to rural Texas graveyards—rituals of kinship and burial dot the novel—and their attraction to each other quickly turns into infatuation. Seeking to set her own house in order, Avery breaks off her affair with the mayor and befriends a strong black woman named Jane Brown, who takes up the mantle of a charismatic homegrown radio personality, Queen Esther. The novel ends on the front porch of Paisano Ranch, that icon of old Texas, where Avery and her new prince begin to plan a future together.