|Publication Date||November 1, 1999|
|Rights||All Rights Available |
It's East Texas in the 1950's, somewhere between the sand hills of that region and the black gumbo soil of Central Texas, a place where the disparate faces of rural America live and breathe: the solid ethics of work and religion are set over and against the open wounds of prejudice and bigotry.
Haley, Texas 1959 is about that place and time. It contains two novellas: imaginative shapings and interweavings of events, both invented and actual, that occurred when Donley Watt was growing up.
|Counterpoise, Earl Lee|
|Today many people have trouble understanding the 1950's, but Donley Watt brings this era to life in all its brutal colors, without sentimentality or overstatement. Both of these novellas are truly a delight to read.|
|WATT's HOT Thinking back to 1959|
Too made-up for memoirs, too fact-based for fiction, Donley Watt's HALEY, TEXAS 1959 wrests a new subgenre, one we might label the "demi-memoir," out of his hardscrabble East Texas childhood. Unlike some memoirists, the author doesn't dish out too many mournful (or too many suspiciously detailed) recollections, and he acknowledges that "the meanderings of my mind" have embellished or distorted crucial moments of the past. At the same time, only experience could spark his precise rendering of the little-bitty daily doings of mid-century middle-class life. HALEY, TEXAS 1959 comprises two novellas. In both you'll find fine prose, unexpected twists, and perfect nostalgic touches, like the mesquite hacker's reverie on his mother's cooking and her discomfort with a neighbor's "dubious, non-confederate origins."
|- December 13, 1999 |
|The two atmospherically rich novellas combined here have the feel of literary time capsules. As Watt explains in a prefatory note, they draw on his experiences growing up in East Texas. Both explore the kind of watershed experiences that change perceptions of the past while shaping the protagonists’ futures; the narratives, he says, are “faithful to the emotional ground of my remembered truth.” |
In “Seven Days Working,” set in 1954, 14-year-old Donnie is given a seemingly impossible task: his father orders him to clear out 70 acres of mesquite trees in just one week. Armed with little more than an ax and a lot of peanut butter, the boy obediently spends long days in the pasture, methodically chopping and thinking back on his life so far. The mix of love, hatred and pride inherent to farming is neatly depicted, and Donnie’s stamina is mirrored in the quiet strength of the prose.
In the title novella, Watt attacks the weightier theme of racial prejudice. Tired of being branded “the preacher’s boy,” 12-year-old Damon Wilson goes on a “nigger knockin’” joyride with three older friends, and watches helplessly—and mutely—as events take a murderous turn. In the nightmarish aftermath, he must decide whether to tell the truth about his redneck companions’ actions, or to lie and avoid becoming a social outcast. The consequences of Damon’s moral dilemma weigh heavily on his preacher father’s conflicted existence and failing career.
Watt resists facile conclusions, and the justice meted out at the end is both surprising and redemptive. The author’s clear-eyed vision of his native state makes this slim volume a satisfying follow-up to his short story collection, Can You Get Here from There? and novel, The Journey of Hector Rabinal.
|AMERICA'S nostalgia for the moral certainty and idyllic family life of the 1950s has always seemed to me a Happy Days fantasy that cannot withstand close scrutiny. I was a teen-ager in the '50s, and it was without question the unhappiest period of my life. The tenor of the times, though not entirely to blame, had a lot to do with my unhappiness. |
Donley Watt, in a pair of powerful novellas published under the title Haley, Texas 1959, challenges the myth of the '50s. Watt, author of a wonderful story collection, Can You Get There From Here? (1994), and a novel, The Journey of Hector Rabinal (1994), was, like me, a teen-ager during that decade, and he portrays adults of the time as I remember them: frustrated wives and mothers and stern, distant fathers trapped in roles they feel compelled to maintain.
Haley, Texas 1959 is apparently a blend of fact and fiction. In a prefatory note, the author says the book "is a fictional narrative, an imaginary shaping and interweaving of both invented and actual events that occurred during those years when I was growing up in East Texas." The first novella, Seven Days Working, takes place in the summer of 1954, and its main character - and narrator - is 14-year-old "Donnie" Watt.
Donnie's father assigns him the task of clearing, in a week's time, 70 acres of mesquite-choked land. The tale is strung along the seven days, but many flashbacks are woven into its fabric. The reader learns, for example, of Donnie's earliest encounters with sex and racism. But the crux of the story is the boy's relations with his family - particularly with his emotionally withdrawn father.
During those seven steamy days, he attempts to "measure up to Daddy's expectations" but fails to earn any overt praise. In the end, he must settle for his own approval: "What did matter were the seven days I had worked. It mattered that I could see what I had accomplished, even if it wasn't done quite right, even if it didn't last."
The symbolism of a boy "trying to slash my way through the thicket that surrounded me" to please "someone whose approval I needed" inevitably suggests that the story is theological allegory. The theology would be Calvinist, of course, a belief system that fits the East Texas ambience perfectly.
But even if the allegorical dimensions are granted, Seven Days Working is a moving tale of family pain and longing that sticks in the mind.
The title novella, by contrast, is lesser in its impact. The thematic concerns of Seven Days Working are straightforward: It is a coming-of-age story, a portrait of the artist as a young man. Haley, Texas 1959 begins as such a story but seems to shift gears midway through.
Told by a third-person narrator, Haley, Texas relates 12-year-old Damon Wilson's introduction to racism. More or less against his will, Damon accompanies his older cousin and a couple of his friends as they attempt to capsize African-American pedestrians with a two-by-four extended out their car window (a vicious sport they call "nigger knockin"). In the course of an evening's entertainment, a black man is accidentally killed on a lonely stretch of highway, and Damon is sworn to secrecy, an oath he quickly regrets.
At this point the focus of the story switches to Damon's father, Wallace Wilson, the town's Methodist minister. Wallace's life is in disarray. His career in the ministry is on a downhill slide; the small church in Haley is pretty much the end of the line. Moreover, his wife, Damon's mother, has never forgiven him for his affair with a woman in Fort Worth some years back.
When Wallace figures out that Damon must know something about the killing and coaxes a confession from his son, his reaction is surprising. His ministerial duty to promote racial justice conflicts with the realization that to reveal his son's involvement in the crime would leave him and his family in an untenable position in the town of Haley. Therefore, he says nothing. He is last seen headed for Houston, running away from a mess partly of his own making.
Watt's character study of Wallace is subtle and convincing. Wallace's moral cowardice is clearly the result of a lifetime of fecklessness, and his behavior invites the reader to question his or her own courage in a similar dilemma.
Donley Watt writes extremely well. His prose is surefooted, eloquent in places, as it reminds us of the cruelty and hate that in the 1950s were juxtaposed with more heartwarming scenes: "On the one hand there is this: a sense of community and family; a holiday dinner with our kin. On the other hand . . . the foul need to dominate and destroy." Human nature, then as now, is often an ugly thing to behold.
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