Edwin "Bud" Shrake is one of the most intriguing literary talents to emerge from Texas, although his best work is too little known among most readers. He is primarily viewed as a sportswriter and the coauthor of Harvey Penick's Little Red Book, which became the best-selling sports book of all time. Shrake has also been a successful screenwriter, working for Hollywood while remaining rooted in Texas. Yet his enduring legacy is found in his novels. He has not enjoyed the commercial success of contemporaries Larry McMurtry and Dan Jenkins, but his work has a lasting resonance. His novels, highly praised upon their release, have retained their vibrancy over the years. Three of his books are ranked by literary scholars as among the best ever written about Texas.
Shrake is one of those rare Texas writers who describes his home state in the manner of a national writer, rather than a regional one. His prose strides confidently through the pages, comically subversive, yet with a heightened regard for the abundant mysteries of human nature. In matters of style, Shrake has less in common with his Texas contemporaries than with other American novelists such as Ken Kesey, Walker Percy, and Kurt Vonnegut.
In his fiction, as in his best screenplays and journalism, Shrake has explored major themes while observing the world from odd angles. He's written compellingly about gender relations, civil rights, and the Kennedy assassination. He's created stories about the early days of the Texas Republic and the making of the atomic bomb, and he's brought to life Native Americans and octogenarian golfers with equal felicity. He's written of beatniks, buffalo hunters, German Jewish immigrants, country musicians, bisexual interior designers, and Tom Landry. He's collaborated with Willie Nelson, and he was the longtime close friend of former Texas governor Ann Richards. Indeed, Shrake was known as "the First Guy" during Richards's tenure in the governor's mansion.
Shrake has always been a serious novelist, despite his reputation for humor and his day job as a journalist. His friends and fellow sportswriters Dan Jenkins and Gary Cartwright wrote successful football novels, as did another friend, former Dallas Cowboy Peter Gent. Yet Shrake himself resisted that temptation. Instead, he used the access his sportswriting offered to win entrée into elite circles. While partying with Dallas's oil millionaires, he took note of their social interactions, business interests, and political preoccupations. Fragments of these observations appear throughout his work, although football itself has remained conspicuously absent.
Shrake's documentarian sensibility is amplified by his uncanny instinct for finding the thick of the action. Many people, for example, have written of Dallas in 1963, but only Bud Shrake was dating Jack Ruby's star stripper at the time of the Kennedy assassination. Shrake's novel of that era, Strange Peaches, captures Dallas's underground culture and also sheds light on the city's vocal right wing—those whom Shrake had observed through his friendship with Dallas Cowboys owner Clint Murchison Jr. Few novelists can bring such material to their work; no wonder Texas Monthly critic Don Graham has written: "When anybody asks me what Dallas was like during the time of the Kennedy assassination, I always refer them to one book: Edwin 'Bud' Shrake's Strange Peaches."
Shrake's fiction is inextricably linked to his experience as a reporter. Early in his career, he was an integral presence at the Fort Worth Press. As his friend Gary Cartwright has noted, Shrake "would write all the police stories, most of the city and country stories, handle club news, obits, stock markets, call-ins about five-legged dogs and eight-pound turnips. Then in the afternoon [the editor] would let him write features." Shrake estimates that he was writing 50,000 words a week during that time—the equivalent of a novel. "It was the greatest training I could have had, going to work for a paper that was woefully understaffed and underpaid where I had to do about five different people's jobs all at once. Even then I realized that I was learning a lot. I bitched about it, of course, but then newspapermen bitch about everything."
Later, during his fourteen-year tenure at Sports Illustrated (1964-1978), Shrake traveled the world, reporting on the athletic contests of the day. Upon joining Sports Illustrated, he had published a well-received novel, But Not for Love, and his editor at the magazine, André Laguerre, considered him a "literary" sportswriter. Because of that, Laguerre often assigned Shrake to write "bonus pieces"—long feature stories that were only marginally, if at all, related to sports. Reading these articles now, years after their initial publication, one is struck by the realization that Shrake was engaging in "the New Journalism" every bit as much as his celebrated friends Larry L. King and Gary Cartwright were. In Shrake's case, though, his articles appeared in a sports magazine, and thus they were not immediately recognized for their literary merit. But as with his fiction, time has been kind to Shrake's best journalism.
During his employment at Sports Illustrated, only one of Shrake's articles was rejected for publication. That was a story about the environmental despoliation of the Big Thicket in East Texas. SI editors worried that the article would offend one of the magazine's owners, who happened to be an East Texas lumber baron. Shrake eventually submitted the story to Harper's magazine instead, where it appeared in the May 1970 issue as "The Land of the Permanent Wave." Harper's editor Willie Morris, who had published such groundbreaking work as Seymour Hersh's My Lai story and Norman Mailer's "On the Steps of the Pentagon," later ranked "The Land of the Permanent Wave" as one of "two pieces among the many [that] gave me special pride." Morris wrote that Shrake's story "struck a chord in me that I have never quite forgotten, having to do with how clean, funny, and lambent prose caught the mood of that moment in the country and mirrored with great felicity what we were trying to do at Harper's. To me few finer magazine essays have ever been written."
From his earliest days at Sports Illustrated, Bud Shrake had hoped to win a multi-book contract from a publisher so that he could strike out on his own as a full-time novelist. Yet the modest sales of his novels doomed that prospect. But Sports Illustrated proved fortuitous in other ways. Shrake's feature stories for the magazine often took him to the very same places, and had him writing about the very same people, that became the subjects of the novels he was working on. In 1966 he went to Chihuahua, Mexico, to write about the Tarahumara Indians. That same tribe figures prominently in his 1968 novel, Blessed McGill. In 1970, Shrake wrote about the richest family in the world at the time, the Hunts of Dallas. The similarities between his account of H. L. Hunt in the Sports Illustrated article and his character "Big Earl" in Strange Peaches are evident. As Shrake notes in this anthology, the excerpt from Strange Peaches "comes about as close to being a verbatim transcript of my lunch visit with H. L. Hunt as I could write and still call it fiction."
In the 1970s, Shrake began to drift away from sportswriting to write screenplays for Hollywood. His very first script was made into the film Kid Blue, starring Dennis Hopper, and the possibilities seemed tantalizing. As Shrake wrote to Larry L. King, "Writing a script is a lot more fun and far, far easier than writing a novel. Only bad thing is that everybody connected with movies thinks he's a writer, and you got to fight thru the thickets of their minds constantly."
During the 1970s and 1980s, Shrake wrote about thirty screenplays. His film credits include Tom Horn (Steve McQueen), J. W. Coop (Cliff Robertson), and Songwriter (Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson). Shrake resisted the studios' entreaties for him to move to California, and instead maintained his home in Austin. He made a good living as a screenwriter, but the disappointments inevitably mounted, and a string of near misses left him feeling alienated. "The only time you can be absolutely sure your movies will make it to the screen," he once said, "is when you go to the theatre and watch it."
Yet among his unproduced screenplays is some fine writing that ranks with his best fiction. One such script, "Pancho Villa and Ambrose Bierce"—written before Carlos Fuentes's novel The Old Gringo was published—presents Shrake's version of the mythical meeting between the Mexican revolutionary and the American writer. Although unfilmed, it later became a stage play, Pancho Villa's Wedding Day, which premiered in Austin in 1984. Shrake's best screenplay of all is "The Big Mamoo," an absurd, yet true-to-life tale of the making of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. Director Jonathan Demme considered "The Big Mamoo" his dream project, but to date the film has not been made. Excerpts from both scripts appear in this anthology, along with a scene from Kid Blue.
In the late 1980s, Shrake began co-writing "as-told-to" biographies of famous friends, publishing best-selling books with Willie Nelson and Barry Switzer. In 1992 came Harvey Penick's Little Red Book. That volume's astounding success, and the cottage industry it spawned, finally gave Shrake the creative freedom he sought. "With the money from the Penick books," Shrake said, "I could finally become what I had hoped to be twenty years before—a former newspaperman who writes novels full-time."
In the years since, Shrake has been extraordinarily prolific. In 2000 he published his long-awaited historical Texas novel, The Borderland. In 2001 came Billy Boy, a coming-of-age novel set in 1950s Fort Worth. He has also co-written two plays with Michael Rudman, Benchmark (which premiered in London in 2002) and Jack (set in the Carousel Club the night before Ruby murdered Oswald). In 2006 Shrake completed a new stage play, The Friends of Carlos Monzon, based on the time he was briefly held in an Argentine prison during the 1970s while on assignment for Sports Illustrated. He finished another novel, Custer's Brother's Horse, in 2005. Also in 2005 he wrote a short story, "How to Live Forever," that is included in this volume. Shrake once told an interviewer that he measures time the way American Indians do: child, young, prime, old. Bud Shrake has remained in his prime for a very long time.
This anthology highlights much of Shrake's best writing, and it also explores the connections between his journalism and his novels, between his life and his art. Much of this "behind-the-scenes" material is drawn from the extensive Edwin "Bud" Shrake archives housed at the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University-San Marcos. Within these literary papers reside correspondence, manuscripts, screenplays, ephemera, and personal materials documenting Shrake's life in writing. However, Shrake did not always keep a copy of his outgoing correspondence. Fortunately, several hundred of his letters to Larry L. King are preserved in the King archives, also housed at the Southwestern Writers Collection. Shrake's letters to King are among his funniest and most playful, testifying to the two writers' long-standing friendship.
The Southwestern Writers Collection Book Series is intended to showcase the region's important writers while highlighting the rich holdings in the collection's literary archives. I can think of no better book to fulfill that purpose than this collection of Edwin "Bud" Shrake's work. This anthology charts the life and career of a significant Texas writer—one whose talent rivals that of the best American writers of his generation.
Steven L. Davis
Editor, Southwestern Writers Collection Book Series