Monday, February 20, 2006

Review: Gail Caldwell's A Strong West Wind

Out of the Panhandle . . . and into the fire
Book critic Gail Caldwell describes her move from idyllic Amarillo to the white-hot cultural ferment of 1970s Austin.

By Edward Nawotka
Sunday, February 19, 2006

In 1973, when Gail Caldwell was 22, she and her friends hatched a plan to kidnap the feminist author Gloria Steinem. The occasion was the National Women's Political Convention in Houston, and Caldwell's all-girl honky-tonk band, the Soeur Queens, had driven in from Austin to play the gig. Fortunately, the plot was short-lived. Still, Caldwell writes in her memoir "A Strong West Wind," "a few of us did go so far as to join Steinem in an elevator and serenade her with 'Glo-o-o-o-o-o-o-r-r-ia, in excelsis deo.' "

It was just the kind of madcap plan a college drop-out living in Austin and casting about for direction would concoct in the '70s. Caldwell wasn't just a musician — she was an anti-Vietnam War protester, a cashier at Grok Books (which eventually morphed into Book People) and a paralegal for a lawyer more fond of drinking at Scholz Garten than preparing for court. She served as confessor to "Gay Place" author Billy Lee Brammer and peer-counselor to the distressed at Womenspace. "Austin in those days," she writes, "had the casual habit of setting itself on fire."

That was Gail Caldwell then. Today, she's the chief book critic at the Boston Globe, where she won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001. Her tough-minded opinions helped shape my ideas of what constituted a good book and offered a thoughtful counterpoint to the diet of academic theory I was fed as an undergraduate at Boston College. For that, I will always be grateful. My mother, on the other hand, can't stand her reviews, which she finds far too grumpy.

So how has Caldwell done in her first foray into book-length writing? Wonderfully. Texans — especially Austinites — will likely regard "A Strong West Wind" as an instant classic of the state's literature.

Born in Amarillo in 1951, Caldwell was "a shy girl in glasses in a do-nothing town" who limped from polio. After her sister taught her to read at age 4, she sought refuge in the library, "where you could lose yourself for hours in sanctioned daydreams." This is a typical creation myth for a writer, but Caldwell invests it with genuine poetry. When she discovers the meaning of the word "the," she imagines it as a "fencepost along the road of text, connecting the stories that seemed to go on as far as, and even beyond, the north Texas plains."

Unlike many memoirists, Caldwell describes a relatively uneventful and happy childhood. "My pleasures remained pensive or interior," she writes, "fishing with my dad, climbing trees with my sister to our fort (in actuality, a neighbor's forbidden flat-topped garage roof), where we read and ate pimiento-cheese or butter-and-sugar sandwiches."

The tempests of adolescence brought this idyll to an end, prompting Caldwell to revolt against the Panhandle's conservative values. She protested the Vietnam War, creating a wedge between her and her father, a World War II veteran nicknamed Wild Bill. She dated an ex-University of Texas quarterback who dropped acid and lost his scholarship. She traded in her George Jones records for Joe Cocker albums.

Caldwell enrolled at nearby Texas Tech University in Lubbock, but she was so confused about her ambitions that she declared seven majors in seven semesters — before getting arrested for marijuana possession. And so she moved to a part of Texas where such behavior might be indulged. "However much the notion might have horrified my preacher ancestors," she writes, "Austin was to be my city on a hill: the little utopia where my best self might emerge."

She made the move in 1970. By 1981, aged 30, she was looking at Austin through the rearview mirror of an old Volvo, "leaving behind a decade of idealism and excess — and a city whose casualties of history had convinced me not to be one of them." The intervening years had been filled with radicalism, consciousness-raising and, eventually, undergraduate and graduate work at UT.

Chapters describing academic studies might sound like a sure-fire interruption of what Caldwell calls the "temporary fugue state that every reader knows." But Caldwell manages to convey the excitement she felt during watershed moments in her intellectual awakening. She writes of an American studies professor whose handwritten comments on her papers "coax(ed) me into the light like some feral creature in the woods." Other professors, such as the one rumored to open a doctoral orals exam with the question, "Why is 'Jaws' a better book than 'Moby-Dick?' Defend," were the sort of people who "lived for the scent of graduate student fear."

Though Caldwell dropped out before taking her oral exams, she managed to get a master's degree in 1980 and in 2002 was named an outstanding alumna of the university.

"A Strong West Wind" doesn't venture far into Caldwell's post-collegiate life — perhaps that's grist for a second volume. Instead, she recalls the yearning that Amarillo evokes in her: "My sister drew and sketched her horses, my mother fussed over her roses in the barren Texas soil, my father drove around town on Sundays at twenty miles an hour, his left arm hanging out the window. These were the activities not just of semi-small-town innocence, but of another age, when daydreaming was a necessary and legitimate activity."

The second half of the book is mostly a paean to the enduring love among the members of her family, especially the women in her life — her sister, mother and Aunt Connie who suffered from depression and was married three times, an archetype who gave Caldwell a "weakness for dogs, novels and bourbon." The details in these final pages are a bit more diffuse than the harder edged early chapters, but they're no less heartfelt.

The white-hot core of this book is the political and social upheaval that Caldwell experienced during her years in Austin. These chapters, as intense as the early autobiographical essays of Joan Didion, are notable for their clear-eyed perspective and a distinct lack of nostalgia for the hippies and hijinks that Caldwell — and Austin — have clearly outgrown.

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