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Austin Chronicle Book Reviews

MAY 24, 1999: 

My Grandfather's Finger by Edward Swift, University of Georgia Press, $24.95 hard

As you read this, the severed finger of a frail man long since dead is floating in some Mason jar, pickled. Nobody knows just how this finger came to break free of its owner so many years ago, and nobody can say just why it was saved. There was a machete involved, yes, but the details are hazy and few. The important thing is that this bottled-up finger has magically pointed the way through the journey of life for novelist Edward Swift, grandson of the man who was left with nine digits. In My Grandfather's Finger, Swift wafts through his fond memories of growing up in rural East Texas to create a continuous string of tales and myths that, instead of building and progressing in time like straightforward prose, pause and reflect on themselves, giggle and grin, then strike a valiant sodbuster's pose.

If there is even the smallest bit of truth to Swift's recollections, he had no choice but to become the quirky writer he is today. As he explains in his introduction, his earliest seasons were spent in Camp Ruby, an almost communal settlement in a section of Texas known as the Big Thicket. Much of Swift's subtle urgency in spinning his myths comes from the regret of knowing that the community itself no longer exists: "Much of the forest has been cut down, and my grandparents, along with most of their children and closest friends, are no longer living." Swfit tickles and is tickled, though, by displaying Camp Ruby at its height, filled with the noises and rumors of perhaps the most colorful characters in Texas. Hardy Cain, the village weirdo in a village of weirdos, spends his time constructing violins in a nuclear fallout shelter. Louise Owens, an unstable evangelist, is hellbent on baptizing the whole state in the name of the Lord. Then there's the sweet image of the author himself as a small boy, wearing green skirts and mangling his ankles as he tries to teach himself the graceful art of ballet.

That balletic grace can be felt in the smooth, easy lines of Swift's prose. The author eases delicately into the music of East Texas speech and thought -- a feat that is far more difficult than peppering the text with a "y'all" here and a "howdy" there. In fact, the reader finds neither of these words anywhere in the book. Instead, Swift's characters seem to think out loud in fluid, reflexive trains of wandering words. This allows Swift to construct enthralling stories within stories as many different characters take turns guiding the prose, not quite unlike the movement of traditional folk mythology. With characters so free-spirited and -- to put it mildly -- bizarre, Swift often reflects on the richness of life in the Thicket: "Grandfather's finger, apricot pits, and dead frogs in the bottom of Coke bottles did little to convince anyone that I was a normal human being ... I had nothing to talk about except Aunt Coleta's diatribes on gypsies, the grave of the Mexican baby, and grandfather urinating on the Christmas tree." Whoa there, Eddie Junior!

The book doesn't seem to end so much as it seems to simply evaporate. Without much of an overarching plot, after all, the story has nowhere important to go. But what might be a disastrous flaw in most works of fiction seems to settle in well with Swift's work. For this is no attempt at a bildungsroman, nor is it a novel that demands resolution. The stories give way to the silence, and the finger gets passed on to a boy in the family. That's all. And wherever it is, it continues to point and reveal in Swift's nostalgic and colorful mind. --David Garza

Alamo Heights: A Novel by Scott Zesch, TCU Press, $24.50 hard

This pleasant first novel by Texas dramatist Scott Zesch brings to life one of the most riveting civic episodes in 20th-century Texas history: the fight to save the Alamo from real estate forces who wanted to build a hotel on the sacred site. The story is real enough, with fleshed-out characters, including two willful Texas women who resort to desperate measures to save the shrine, a Yankee villain who is a lackey of rich hotel builders from the East, a corrupt Texas senator, a German female sculptor, and a darkly handsome and charismatic strolling mariachi who composescorridos about the events as they come down.

The principal character is Rose de León Herrara, the granddaughter of a patriotic Tejano who died in the Alamo. Based on the heroic Adina de Zavala, Mrs. Herrara in this book roars around San Antonio circa 1907 in her Peerless automobile, creating upset and publicity wherever she goes, much to the chagrin of her earnest lawyer husband Antonio, who is trying very hard to make it in Anglo/German legal and social circles.

Paralleling this story line is that of another forceful Texas woman, Alva Carson Keane (based on Clara Driskill), who has left her South Texas ranch upbringing to be educated in France and to live in New York, where she writes romantic novels about the Wild West. Not to give much away, the unlikely pairing of the passionate Rose and the wealthy and impulsive Alva brings together the two main streams of San Antonio culture. If a bit melodramatic, it appears that the actual confrontation between the developers and the conservationists was nothing if not stark, culminating with the real-life Adina de Zavala barricading herself inside the gates of the mission while the wrecking ball was poised to do its work. The actual story was on the front page of The New York Times for three consecutive days. Zesch laces historic documents into the text, including dinner invitations, newspaper stories, letters, and telegrams. This technique efficiently advances and fills out the story, which does lean a little toward stereotyped good guys (women) and bad guys (men), although there are pompous and wrong-headed women and the figure of the dashing mariachi at the end is not only testosterone-filled but brave and good-hearted. The tone of this book is breezy; it's an easy read and appropriate for every generation of reader who cares about such things. --Dick Holland

Best Texas Writing 1, edited by Joe Ahearn and Brian Clements, Rancho Loco Press, $15 paper

The editors of Best Texas Writing are upfront about their targeted audience: In the introduction, they acknowledge that they "have nothing against cowboy music and cattle (though we can do without the dust), and nothing against them in literature. But neither do we believe 'Texas writing' to be dominated by the ghosts of the Old West. To those potentially annoyed readers we must reply, Best Texas Writing is not edited for the cowboy from Clarendon.'" This is an understatement, as it turns out, because the editors have focused mostly on ultra-literary, esoteric selections to represent the state at large. Postmodern poetry apostles will find much to like here. Gerald Burns' "Letter Bomb for Ted," a free-verse, Ginsberg-like epistle to Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, and Chris Haven's "The Lucky Ones," a short story about a couple in search of a metaphor for their marriage, assure us, however, that few local cedar-choppers will put their Budweisers down long enough to flip through these pages. Marion Winik and Clay Reynolds do what they can to balance out the collection, but even the strength of their narratives can't salvage the book for most of us shallow dunderheads.

The courage and vision of the editors is admirable, and the thorough background information that details how the various contributors came to write these pieces is fascinating, but when volume two appears, it might be wise to modify the title to Best Literary Texas Writing. Or leave Texas out of it and call it what they like. -- David Marion Wilkinson

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