An astonishing book, by an extraordinary writer, and more importantly, an extraordinary human being. The book assumes the form of a narrative of the author's three week solo canoe trip down the Brazos, a river about one hour by speeding car west of Ft. Worth, Texas; the journey was taken "way down in the fall," in late November, 1959, when the northerners begin to howl, and bring snow. By most estimations, it is not much of a river, and even the author says: "...on a salty river unloved, unlovable except by a few loners and ranchers and cedar-hill misanthropes." Graves gives only glimpses into his background, and if you blink, you might miss them. But consider, here is a man who has read Joyce's "Ulysses," and recalls that Leopold Bloom's father had slept with his dog, Athos, in order to cure the father's aches and pains, just as Graves was carrying a six-month-old dachshund he routinely refers to as "the passenger," for his own comfort. But Graves is equally well-grounded in the natural world, knows all the various types of trees, how they burn, and the appearance of the wood's grain, and that: "the white oaks are prime...one of the finest of aromatic fuels is a twisted, wave-grained branch of live oak..." Graves was a Marine Captain during World War II, wounded on Saipan, but again the reader only gets the slightest glimpse of that in one passage in which that perspective is used to reflect on the casualties of this countryside during the frontier days: "I once saw 4,000 Japanese stacked like cordwood, the harvest of two days' fighting, on one single islet on one single atoll awaiting bulldozer burial, more dead that the Brazos could show for its whole two or three decades of travail..." Graves has traveled as well, slight glimpses of which are permitted in "I'm familiar with the washed silent streets of Manhattan at five o'clock in the morning..." and "...did see dawn wash the top of the old wall at Avila..." and it was almost certainly there that he watched a man carve out a pair of wooden clogs with an ax, in fifteen minutes; a skill now permanently lost. An aspect of his life we are not afforded even the slightest glimpse are those that might be characterized, with a bit of leniency, as his "women problems," and thus why he might be alone. In anticipation of that conversational gamut, he rebukes us all: "Few people are willing to believe that a piece of country, hunted and fished and roamed over, felt and remembered, can be company enough."
Graves wrings so much meaning, and numerous stories, just like Faulkner has done before him, about a similarly "postage-stamp size" part of America; in the formers' case it is the upper-middle Brazos river, maybe only a twentieth of its total length. He knows the history of the area well, particularly as it was settled during the frontier days, and one tectonic plate overwhelmed the one that had been there the longer, represented by "The People," the Comanche's, the "Lords of the Plain," and the Kiowas. He weaves some beautiful vignettes from that period into his journey, with my favorite being the hanging of Cooney Mitchell; but there are numerous other memorable ones, including the smoking out of the recluse, Sam Sowell, from his shack. Graves teases the reader at the end, indicating that there is "No room..." for so many other tales that he has left untold.
The central theme is the river itself, and his farewell to it. At the beginning he describes his "enraged awe" when learning that it would shortly not exist, at least as he knew it, since it was being damned at several locations. Graves is one of the best naturalist writers extant, describing with love how the land lays "this way and that," and the wildlife along the way, some of which he kills for his food. He is inspired by Thoreau, whom he repeatedly calls "St. Henry." At the end, he questions whether it is all "a lament," but overall, you get the sense of acceptance; that things change, and this is one more, as so many residents flee to the factories of Fort Worth, Dallas, and Detroit. And how many nature writers, traveling down a river, sleeping in skewed tents, and eating squirrels, could wryly reflect on his existence through the prism of Veblen's "The Theory of the Leisure Class"?
Grave's book is chock full of philosophical takeaways, that should last me a long time, if not forever. I've traveled over the Brazos, about eight times in my life, each time I was going between 70, and hopefully 80 mph, trying to get out of Texas before nightfall. Thus, Graves rebuke stung: "The hard thing is to get slowed down." A more ironic thought recently resonated, when I was traveling with my wife to Death Valley. She said, of a road 30 miles to the east of DV: "We've been on this road before." And she was right: it was so like some other road we had previously traveled down in a desert landscape. I had to chuckle, because I assured her that it was quite impossible, but I shared with her one of Graves' insights: "On the fringes of the middle age and after, the déja-vu is likely not to be illusory." Even less so, considerably beyond such a fringe!
Graves is one of the wonderful members of the exclusive 6-star read club.