For the last four years, I’ve been producing a list of Best Reads to end the year on Heartlands. It’s an eclectic collection and should not be mistaken for one of those Top Ten lists of books that actually appeared in print during the current year. Especially this year when the pandemic sent me back to older books to try to get some perspective and to remind myself of what life used to be like. To be honest, I was also trying to escape the incessant election.
In the end, as I look over my own Top Ten, I see the same preoccupations that spurred the birth of this blog in the first place—writing with a strong sense of place, particular attention to the South and its enduring themes of race and faith, poetry, Texas.
That’s where this year’s list starts, with a book I haven’t reviewed elsewhere on the blog. Nothing Happened and Then It Did: A Chronicle in Fact and Fiction by Jake Silverstein begins and ends in the Big Bend country of west Texas. It’s a region that has always attracted cranks and creatives, people who have slightly off-kilter relationships with reality. It can result in the highbrow art colony of Marfa, where you can peruse glossy books on sculpture, or the lowbrow ghost town of Terlingua, where Jerry Jeff Walker and a host of other misfits through the years have gathered, addled by the scent of tequila and cinnabar.
Silverstein found himself in Marfa in 1999, working for the local paper and pursuing tales of the writer Ambrose Bierce, who may have been buried there after an aborted attempt to infiltrate Mexico during the Revolution. That much of the story is true…I think. Silverstein wants you to take a ride with him through chapters that supposedly alternate between fact and fiction, but the line is fuzzy…appropriate to the landscape because, as he says, “the beauty is pitiless and unusual, and the hard dark mountains furnish no refuge, and the effect of prolonged exposure is often to leave you wondering what is real.” (xi)
If you can allow yourself the luxury of suspension of belief, you’ll be treated to outlandish tales well-told. Silverstein not only digs for Bierce’s bones and legacy, he participates in a poetry contest at a gaudy Reno casino, searches for the buried treasure of Jean Lafitte in the bayous of Lousiana, covers the opening of a McDonald’s in Zacatecas, and travels with a crew in an antique car race across Mexico. He’s looking for stories to aid him in becoming a real journalist, like the New Yorker’s Deborah Gallatin, who is his white whale and bête noire.
He ends up in Zacatecas because “I had the notion that it would be good, both financially and journalistically, to live someplace where there was nothing happening. That way, when something did happen, there would be no one but me to write about it.” (119) The only thing that does happen is the opening of the afore-mentioned McDonald’s, “which didn’t amount to much.” (127) But he finds stories nonetheless.
So when he returns to Terlingua in the final chapter, it is in the company of another one of those addled souls, Baker Tenholtz, whom he meets in a Houston grocery store and agrees to chauffeur across the state. Themes start to converge. Meditations on journalism ensue. And it all makes a kind of hazy sense.
What a great ride this book was! Of course, it had me at Texas, but that alone wouldn’t have gotten into the Best Reads list. Even though it was published in 2010, Nothing Happened made something happen for me in 2020.
For #9, tune in tomorrow.