California Literary Review

The Works of Max Crawford


April 24th, 2007 at 7:07 am

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Waltz Across Texas
by Max Crawford
University of Oklahoma Press, 393pp
CLR Rating: ★★★★★
Lords of the Plain
by Max Crawford
University of Oklahoma Press, 393pp
CLR Rating: ★★★★★
by Max Crawford
University of Oklahoma Press, 393pp
CLR Rating: ★★★★★
by Max Crawford
University of Oklahoma Press, 393pp
CLR Rating: ★★★★★

Stretching Language – The Books of Max Crawford

No one is accusing the New York book industry (and “industry” is indeed the correct word) of making an effort to publish authors who place a value on not only the skillful and correct use of our language, but also are trying to expand the horizons of narrative. Being a serious writer in a time when swill by corrupt business tycoons, politicians and not-funny comics generates advances well into seven figures is difficult, frustrating and at times disheartening.

Perhaps, but none of this malaise has slowed down Max Crawford in the least. And he has found an ally, The University of Oklahoma Press, which has published four of his novels. I deal with these in order of publication.

I first tumbled onto Crawford’s work when I read his 1975 novel Waltz Across Texas. The state is portrayed in this one as a completely realized, many faceted world, described in an honestly-told tale about hard people who play for the highest stakes, ruthlessly and sometimes foolishly. The narrative is a deadly, cruel dance that wanders from the enormous ranches of the Lone Star state to the back rooms of Houston’s big money and political players to a seedy cantina on the Mexican border – a macabre waltz that revolves around treachery, scandal and murder. As the cover copy on the original printing by Farrar, Straus and Giroux states, “In the end, it is a Dostoevskian nightmare with a twist, a story of crime and reward.” A quick example:

“All I had was a corner on bad shit – a blind idjit for a daddy, a credit-card freak for a mamma, fifty thousand acres of scrub mesquite, and ten thousand matchin head of scrawny Herefords…Yessir, the kid was in bad shape, his hands was shaky, his eyes was not clear, his dreams was freakin out the help, there wasn’t no lead in his pencil. He had only one pal, ole Jack Daniels, and he was out to git him. Still is, mebbe…”

When I finished this one several years ago I was reminded of the books of James Crumely like The Last Good Kiss and Dancing Bear. But within weeks I decided to reread the book and this time was knocked out by the amount of layers and depth Crawford had seamlessly worked into Waltz Across Texas. Making the difficult appear easy is a sign of skill.

Crawford was born in 1938 in west Texas, a landscape of harsh elements, mean weather and rugged terrain. He studied economics at the University of Texas and held a writing fellowship at Stanford University. He has edited and written for such underground publications as the Peninsula Observer, Maverick and 100 Flowers.

His next work published by OU Press was Lords of the Plain, a book that rivals Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian in terms of description of brutal landscape and even more brutal humans. In this historical novel, the U.S. 2nd Calvary rides into and through much of Texas in the 1870s with orders to keep the peace and to persuade the wild, tough Comanches to move peacefully onto a reservation. Told through the eyes of Philip Chapman, the novel careers, climbs, force marches and wars through some of the harshest country on the planet including the llano estacado described by Francisco Vasquez Coronado in 1541 as follows:

“In nine days’ march I reached some plains, so vast that I did not find their end anywhere I went…plains with no more landmarks than as if we had been swallowed up in the sea, where our guides strayed about, because there was not a stone, nor a bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by,,,”

Crawford uses this stark landscape along with the enormous broken country of Palo Duro and Blanco canyons as the stage for a series of connected morality plays involving Chapman, the cavalry itself, and the Indians, This severe landscape is also manipulated by the author as a setting, metaphorically, for the human soul, a never-ending circle of good, evil, fulfillment, emptiness, conflict, a circle that has no starting or ending locations. Crawford turns a complicated story and elaborate concept into a flowing, engrossing book. Again the magical trick of writing the complicated with the appearance of ease ghosts across the page.

The next two books, Crawford’s latest offerings, amp up his progression as a writer by several factors of ten. No way would New York publishers, entities that consider releasing the latest hackneyed work by Tom Clancy or the mediocre ramblings of Whoopi Goldberg as cutting edge, ahead of the curve, touch either of these. This is where university presses come into play on the relatively barren literary scene. Presses like the University of Oklahoma offer an outlet, some cash and, to a large extent, a sanctuary for gifted writers like Crawford. Imagining and then bringing to life novels, especially those as complex and unique as he writes, is difficult enough, bordering on madness, without having to deal with the arrogance of both the increasingly necessary evils known as agents, not to mention the tunnel-visioned editors of the eastern presses. The University of Oklahoma Press and others like it fulfill a very serious need in this visually-oriented, brain-candy, quick fix time.

So along comes Wamba, released in 2002 and as crazy as a book can get, yet all the while, like many lunatics, making perfect, often brilliant, sense. In a style that is the best of Faulkner dragged across the high plains of Texas and force fed Crawford’s arcane vision of existence, this novel is told by potential suicide Roy Alan Richardson who has come home to deal with his mother, Wamba, a near mythical person who like everyone and everything else in this book exists like the harsh reality of a hangover but also drifts through time like a barely-managed afternoon, whiskey drunk. Richardson writes his memoir on hundreds of bar napkins that he then wads up and the bartender then tosses into a garbage can. This is not an easy romp through a verbal park, the book often acting like a chaotic undisciplined child, which it is not. With a confidence and skill obviously born of eternal hours roaming his own mind, Crawford has written a “stylistic tour de force” that logically shifts perspectives within a multitude of movements among sentence fragments to lyrical passages to philosophical ponderings. Wamba isn’t about the story. It’s about the telling of the events, how they are at times softly tossed our way to examine and at other times slammed into our heads like a sucker punch.

And so the progression continues until appearance of Eastertown in 2004. The story takes place on the western plains – Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, take your pick. This time, shortly after World War II. Much of the book, much of the character motion, revolves around truly unique theatrical adaptations of well-known stories like Dickens’ A Christmas Carol at the local high school. A rogue, traveling band of dwarves appears in one play. Locals and those passing through town – a place described as “a very small place, Sometimes you wonder whether it exists at all, it is so small.” – have their parts, too. Reading Eastertown, at times makes Joyce’s Finnigan’s Wake seem like a literary dalliance, which it obviously isn’t, but the effort is worth the frustration as exemplified by this classic Crawford riff.

“Do you know what alive is, stupid? No, you don’t know what alive is because you are alive. You, Miss Blum, a few others, many of whom seem to live in this town and teach at this school, are not like the rest of us. We, and I’m talking about the vast majority of humankind, aren’t alive. We, myself, your friend Miss Steen, all the others, feed on you, pal. We need you. We have to have you to be. To not to be. Without you around to study we wouldn’t know how to do it. How to go about looking alive when we’re not. Without you around,” Jack Cook touched his friend’s knee, “we would have to face the truth and what we fucking are. The walking, talking, living dead.”

That passage says it all, reveals what Crawford’s up to. And without writers of his exceptional talents and stamina, and without adventuresome presses like the University of Oklahoma, we would have to always face, without option, the awful truth about what conventional publishers and the unthinking hacks they champion really are – “The walking, talking, living dead.”

  • peter kinsley

    There is hope for literature in America when thinking men like John Holt read, digest and explain some of the works of Max Crawford, a true literateur (or what the French call “Homme de Lettres), This American author spent his life as a dedicated writer, starting each day, at the crack of dawn on a regime that never altered and with which he never faltered. French cafe owners called him “Le Professeur” because, Like Hem, he liked to write in cafes in Moliere’s town of Pezenas in SW France. Alan Sillitoe carried a copy of Lords of the Plain reverently to his publisher and agent in London, who just did not recognize a classic when it was pushed under their noses. Everything Mr. Holt says about the literary scene is true, and Max Crawford knew it and soldiered on. That’s what we do: we soldier on … the moving hand has writ….But poor Max is now in a nursing home in Montana, suffering from dementia. The pen is laid aside, the first cafe au lait of his writing morning a distant memory. The last I heard from him he wrote that he had to put his gloves on to watch the weather forecast in Livingston, and he told Michael Koepf, another great American author, that he was reading his memoir “to see how it ends…” When Louis Zukofsky visited Ezra pound during his last days in New York he said: “It’s a sad world, anyway. Not many of us will get out of it alive.” A hundred years from now American students will read Lords of the Plain as an example of English prose at its best. It is the prose equal to Alexander Kinglake, Churchill’s favourite author. Max Crawford will still be alive and well….

  • peter kinsley

    May I add a PS to my earlier comment? How many books by American authors have kept an American President awake all night because it was “unputdownable”? President Ronald Reagan was given “Lords of the Plain” along with a cattle-drive book by Larry McMurtry. Next day Nancy Reagan told the White House Cultural Adviser: “Please don’t give any more books by Max Crawford to the President. He was awake all night reading it, and he fell aleep during a meeting this morning.”
    It is time the Universities of Texas and Oklahoma gave some kind of award to Max Crawford. In England or Scotland he would be given a Doctorate. He is seriously ill and has dedicated his life to writing: writing which will be of benefit to students in years to come.

  • Joe Smalley

    Max Crawford called me “Pepe” when we were in high school together in Floydada, Texas. In our production of Thornton Wilders “Our Town”, which was his request of our teacher/director, he played Mr. Webb and I played George Gibbs. This was more than fifty years ago and I have just learned of his present circumstances. I wish I could sit and talk with him about Waltz Across Texas and Lords of the Plain and Six Key Cut. I have just learned about Eastertown and Wamba. They are on my immediate list. A high school friend I have never forgotten, a writer whose work I love, a man who grew so far beyond his beginings; I will always hold him with affection in my heart.

  • William N. Thomas

    Good to see a home town do well.


    I am a cook at the retirement home in Missoula,MT where mr.Crawford resides and had recently looked his name up because i had heard he was an author..His work seems very interesting to me and i look forward to reading his books..I have tried talking to him but his it seems as though his dementia is too severe to hold conversation.

  • chip fraser

    strange that this review of Crawford’s work leaves out any mention of his “The Bad Communist” (1979), concerning northern California Maoism from August to November 1972. This book is definitely not an unforgettable piece of writing, rather what appears to be a hastily-slapped-together roman à clef dishing the barely-veiled dirt on the Venceremos organization. Of little literary significance and considerable political-historical significance for anyone interested in the 60s “New Left”. It would be very interesting to learn more about this phase of Crawford’s life…

  • Cy Whitfill

    I just read a posting by Max Crawford’s cousin indicating that Max passed away on October 7, 2010. May he rest in peace.

  • Tom

    Hi, everyone.

    I’m a scholar writing what I believe to be the first book-length treatment of Max Crawford’s fiction. My intention is to bring Max and his work back into public view and clarify why he is urgently important.

    It’s primarily about his first two books, *The Backslider* and *Waltz Across Texas*, with a small discussion of *Lords of the Plain*. To a large extent, it explores the depth of meaning he found in his home region, the caprock and the breaks at the southeastern point of the Texas Panhandle.

    If anyone knew Max or knows anyone who knew him, especially in Floydada, please let me know.



    Just read about the passing of Max Crawford. While visiting my mother-in-law
    in Lubbock, driving around town looking for the old cemetery, I caught a highway sign that read “Floydada, 45 miles”. Drove out, pilgrimage style, like
    Marc Cohn in “Walking in Memphis”. Flat, foreboding, arrid, with an orange paradox of the biggest bunch of pumpkins I ever saw. Max may have left the place and gone half round the world, but in the end he boomeranged all the way back home.
    He was not at the Dairy Queen, nor the local library, certainly not in the sheriff’s office, but he gave me a big wink from the low sailing clouds, from way up in those blue skies of West Texas. It’s as though he was saying, “It ain’t much, but it’s home.” Finally at peace.

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