Gary Cartwright’s 1982 collection, Confessions of a Washed-up Sportswriter (Including Various Digressions About Sex, Crime, and Other Hobbies), brought together the best of his work from such magazines as Harper’s, Rolling Stone, and Texas Monthly (where he has been on the staff since 1982). And his best was very good indeed, for during the seventies, when most of these pieces appeared, Cartwright ruled.
Several of the stories provide a vivid background to the wild doings of Cartwright and his friend Edwin “Bud” Shrake in Shrake’s novel Strange Peaches. In “Who Was Jack Ruby?” Cartwright paints the definitive portrait of one of the all-time great losers, the volatile minor mobster who ran a sleazy strip joint in downtown Dallas called the Carousel Club and shot Lee Harvey Oswald in front of God and everybody. Jada, the redheaded stripper who worked at the Carousel and liked to drive around Dallas in a gold Cadillac convertible wearing a mink coat, high heels, and nothing else, makes a cameo appearance.
Cartwright had a real empathy for the down-and-out, the outcast, the bizarre. One of the most compelling pieces is a long profile of Candy Barr, the most famous exotic dancer in Texas history. Cartwright visited Candy, née Juanita Dale Slusher, at her cottage in Brownwood long after the headlines and the fame. The star of Smart Aleck, the best-known porno flick of the fifties, she had a prison record (marijuana possession) and a penchant for poetry. Cartwright calls her a “great survivor, [a] great lady.”
Through close observation and sympathy, Cartwright grants a kind of enduring dignity to his subjects. He records the Joad-like sufferings of a family of cedar choppers trying to survive the labyrinth of welfare, and he relates the strange death of the Marlboro Man, Carl “Bigun” Bradley, who drowned on horseback in “the starkly beautiful Marlboro country north of Sweetwater.” Many of the articles have the feel of good short stories. “Leroy’s Revenge,” which offers a harrowing account of pit-bull fighting, opens: “Otis Crater was late for the fancier’s organizational meeting at the Cherokee Lounge for good reason. He had just stabbed a U-totem attendant following a discussion of the economic impact of a five-cent price increase on a six-pack of beer.” But I guess my favorite is one I’d somehow overlooked before. “The Middle-aged Man and the Sea” is a real beaut. Urged by Texas Monthly editor Bill Broyles in 1977 to pick a travel story, “something easy” to reward himself, Cartwright set out for the Sea of Cortés off the coast of Southern California on a two-week kayak survivalist journey with a bunch of softies seeking salvation in the wild. This real survivor story sparkles with humor, folly, and a gripping sense of danger you won’t find on the TV show. For anybody who wants a walk on the wild side—in a Texas that seems long vanished—Cartwright is the writer to take you there.