Bud Shrake’s new book: “Custer’s Brother’s Horse”

 

Mementoes of friends and travels line the walls of the West Lake Hills home Bud Shrake bought with a screenwriting check in 1971. Shrake, who’s also written books with Willie Nelson and Barry Switzer, starts his days by walking his dog and settles down for writing in the afternoons.

source: www.statesman.com
by Patrick Beach
photo:  Mark Matson

It wasn’t Edwin “Bud” Shrake’s first mystical experience. The author of 10 novels and much more lived through the ’60s and ’70s, after all, and is on record as having communed with angels.

No. This was just the one that explained the universe to him.

This might take a minute, but bear with me: In September 2001, Shrake and longtime steady Ann Richards go to New York for Shrake’s 70th birthday party at Elaine’s. They have tickets to see “The Producers” on 9/11, and Shrake remembers looking down Fifth Avenue at the smoke, a smell in the air like “barbecue mixed with burning rubber.” They make their way home after the planes start flying again, and Shrake goes into the hospital for surgery on a cancerous tumor in a kidney. He’s in considerable pain, popping the button on the morphine drip. Richards can tell he’s in pain and she asks, “What do you want?” He jokes, “I want some opium.” 

Richards hollers for opium and the next thing Shrake hears is someone saying, “Governor, we don’t have any opium …”

But he gets something for the pain. Richards leaves and he’s looking at the ceiling, noticing groups of strangers coming into his room totally silent. Then:

“The walls of the room disappeared and I was looking at this great vastness. I realized I do have a soul. And that the universe is made of bits of information and I realized the universe is no fluke. I realized there is no heaven and hell, no Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Buddhist. Life is the gasoline that runs our engine. The machine breaks but your spirit goes on. I realized that death is right there, just like your elbow.”

He woke up in intensive care. His next-door neighbor, Mary Ellen Umstattd, had come to see him, found him dead and gave him CPR. Umstattd, a former nurse, told him, “You were dead for several minutes.”

“I don’t call it a near-death experience,” Shrake says, sitting in his home in the hills with a sweeping view of Austin, on land he bought with his first screenwriting check. “I call it an after-life experience.”

Well. If that had happened to you, what would you do with that knowledge?

Bud Shrake, being Bud Shrake, made it an element of his latest work of fiction, “Custer’s Brother’s Horse” (John M. Hardy, $24.95), which he’ll be talking about as part of the “Getting Even: The Literature of Revenge” panel at the Texas Book Festival at 11 a.m. today at the Capitol.

Shrake’s taking a victory lap on the festival and award circuit is nothing new. He is, after all, a member of the Texas Film Hall of Fame and holds the Lon Tinkle lifetime achievement award from the Texas Institute of Letters.

What is remarkable is that at an age when he might be forgiven for not having any ambition greater than watching the sun set over West Lake Hills, Shrake is working on several novels and a couple of plays. He’s sober since the mid-’80s and financially secure enough to follow his muse rather than a paycheck since co-writing “Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book” — still the best-selling sports book of all time.

“Custer’s” is Shrake’s third novel since ending a 12-year novel-writing hiatus with “The Borderland” in 2000. He has been, in the words of Steven L. Davis, who wrote a biography of Shrake, Gary Cartwright, Dan Jenkins and other “Texas Literary Outlaws,” “a major force in the state’s literature for some 40 years.” (For the record, he’s also worked on some two dozen movies off and on, including during that novel-writing break.)

He’s 76, he’s Bud Shrake and he can do whatever he dang pleases.

Here’s where the Fort Worth boy and journeyman writer begins, at the old Fort Worth Press in 1951, as quoted in Davis’ book:

“I looked around at all the people, and the state editor was over there eating a can of sardines at his desk at six o’clock in the morning, and the bowling writer was back there drunk and had set fire to the wastebasket and the one-legged city editor was threatening people with his crutch … All of a sudden I walked into a world I knew I belonged to.”

“I smelled the place,” he says now. “And I heard the teletype machines. That’s what got me. Do you still have teletype machines?”

Not so much, but one thing remains true in newspapers: Sportswriters have more fun than cops reporters.

“I’d look over at the guys in the sports department and they were all laughing and two or three of them were drunk and on the weekends they got to travel,” Shrake says.

Much of the history been recounted more than once, so let’s be brief: An immersion in Hemingway and Fitzgerald while at Texas Christian. Meeting “The Gay Place” author Billy Lee Brammer. (“What impressed me was that he wrote about people at Scholz Garten and people in New York took him seriously,” Shrake says.)

From the Press to the Dallas Times Herald to the Dallas Morning News, where he wrote a column six days a week. (“That was the only time of my life where I felt like a celebrity,” he says.) A $10,000 advance for “But Not for Love,” his second novel, which he wrote in Europe. Hanging out with Cartwright and Jenkins. Dating Jada, a stripper at Jack Ruby’s Carousel Club as the madness of November 1963 Dallas loomed. Following Jenkins, moving to New York months later to work for Sports Illustrated just as the NFL was turning into a big deal. Cranking out novels and screenplays while working for SI. Lots and lots of carousing. Many thrills in Hollywood along with the invariable attendant frustration. (One project got passed over for that masterpiece of American cinema, “Xanadu.”)

Leaving SI in 1979 to adapt a best-seller called “Nightwing” for Columbia. A doctor telling him in the mid-’80s that if he didn’t give up the speed and the dope and the whiskey and the cigarettes he might live a year — and even then he still had to think about it. Writing books with Willie Nelson — who DJ’d at a station in Dallas where Shrake also worked decades before — as well as Barry Switzer and Penick, the last one being what every hand-to-mouth writer covets: the big score.

“I made enough money that I can live like I live now and I don’t have to do anything to make a living,” he says.

“Like I live now” means living in this very spot, more or less, that he’s owned since 1971. “I told the architect I wanted a cabin in the woods and that’s what I got,” he says. But the woods are getting thinner in places, razed to make way for million-dollar hilltop villas. Inside, the house is full of mementos of an adventurous life — a huge illustration of Sonny Liston for an SI cover, a blown-up and framed New York Times best-seller list, lots of pictures of Ann Richards, who called her longtime companion a “little writing factory” and who died in September 2006.

“That was devastating,” Shrake said. “She was the anchor of my life for 17 years. I never would have believed it. Death got her before we got old.”

Richards always liked to joke that Shrake just hung around her because she always got ex-governor parking. At Lady Longhorns games? Right next to the door.

These days he plays a lot less golf than he used to, but takes his dog, Feeney, on a walk every morning, whacking balls into the woods with a couple of clubs. He hits the gym three days a week and usually settles into work about 3 p.m., not knowing if he’ll be there for two hours or 10. All those years of cranking out columns and features and novels and screenplays can’t help but instill a certain discipline. The guy once inscribed a book for a younger writer with this advice: “Write faster.” And out of that discipline and ability to multitask, as it’s called now, come words in a torrent.

“Bud never thought about retiring,” says Cartwright, who’s semi-retired himself. “Bud always had more of a work ethic than me. I don’t think I ever would have become a writer without his encouragement.”

The new book, which begins in Austin just after the Civil War, features a British adventurer and author named Edmund (note the similarity to the author’s name) Varney who on a foggy morning narrowly escapes being hanged for stealing a horse owned by Lt. Tom Custer, Gen. George Custer’s brother. What the reader doesn’t know until later is that Varney, like Shrake, has already seen through to the other side: “He felt no fear,” Shrake writes. “He had visited the afterlife. He knew what awaits. … He had not written of the quiet people who came to him in the cave to guide him into the afterlife.”

The book also has a less metaphysical and more contemporary concern — the issue of an occupying army, an occupied people. Shrake connects the dots to 2007 Iraq: “Think of how many empires have died in those sands.”

In a jacket blurb, Larry McMurtry calls “Custer’s” “a brilliant novel of the terrible level of violence that afflicted Civil War America.”

There are other books in the works. Pseudonymously, as “Richard Swift,” he’s 200 pages into a novel about a fictional Sports Illustrated writer who goes to Hollywood to write a movie for Steve McQueen. And a gangster novel set in 1950s Fort Worth. And another about a guy living in West Lake Hills with the ghost of his first wife.

Then there are the plays. With Michael Rudman he co-wrote “Benchmark,” which debuted in London in 2002 with former Texan Jerry Hall in the cast. The play will likely open next spring at the Austin Playhouse, with filmmaker Richard Linklater directing. He and Rudman also have “Jack” about Ruby’s Carousel Club, which will be staged in London as well.

Finally, a portion of his fictional catalog, including “Strange Peaches” — “the deformed child I’m most proud of” — is being republished.

The stories keep coming. Shrake maintains they’re in the ether just waiting to be caught and they are, in their own way, all true. He loves the process of writing much more than the accomplishment of having been published, chasing what all writers crave even more than money and recognition of their own towering genius — words flowing onto the page, obliterating ego and deadlines, appointments and other workaday distractions.

“He has never stopped working,” says longtime friend Bill Wittliff, whose photos grace the cover of “Custer’s” and also the reissue of Shrake’s “Blessed McGill,” and who’s just released a book of photographs from the filming of the “Lonesome Dove” TV miniseries, the teleplay of which Wittliff wrote. “He writes every day. Bud is a writer, and writers write. And when it’s good they’re glad and they keep writing and when it’s bad they wad it up and throw it away and keep writing. Bud is a writer. That’s a hell of a deal. There are a lot of people who are writers as long as it’s comfortable being a writer. Bud, by God, just never stops.”

Shrake suggests he doesn’t have a choice.

“When I’m seriously working on a novel,” says Shrake, “I can’t go live another life.”

Texas Book Festival Bud Shrake, Jeff Abbott, Shalom Auslander and Christopher Kelly talk about ‘Getting Even: The Literature of Revenge’ at 11 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 3, Capitol Extension Room E2.012, as part of the Texas Book Festival. Each author will sign books in the signing tent about 15 minutes after the panel discussion.

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