Evidence of Love by John Bloom and Jim Atkinson. Texas Monthly Press, $15.95.
WHY IS IT so hard to like Candy Montgomery, even four years after she killed her friend Betty Gore with 41 whacks of an axe? I mean, is there anything necessarily wrong with an overindulged, ennui-ridden suburban housewife living in a $100,000 custom home who: teaches Bible school and just loves to debate esoteric points of doctrine with her feminist minister; talks Betty’s husband into having an affair; later dumps him (she wanted “new and different experiences,” you see); chops friend Betty into pieces after Betty allegedly said “shhh” (that triggered a “dissociative reaction,” you know) because the sound made Candy think of bad things from her childhood; and then gets off scot-free on a plea of self-defense? Maybe I’m being picky, but somehow I can’t like Candy.
Readers may share that feeling after reading Evidence of Love, a meticulously crafted account of a killing that must rank right up there with the doings of Cullen and Priscilla as the North Texas crime story of the century, at least so far. But of course, we shouldn’t concern ourselves with the character of Ms. Candy, any more than should have the jury that held, unanimously, that she had done no wrong. Like writers John Bloom and Jim Atkinson, we should set aside Candy’s “brazen hussy” image, her annoying religious hypocrisy, her nauseating egocentricity, and try, while holding our noses, to look at the facts.
And Evidence of Love has the facts, at least as far as they could be found by two first-class reporters. With the cooperation of Candy Montgomery, Allan Gore (Betty’s husband), and a host of other principals, Bloom and Atkinson have reconstructed the killing, investigation and trial in remarkable detail. We see this “resolutely typical” housewife hack her friend to death, then pack hubby and the kids (including Betty’s own daughter) into the station wagon, and it’s off to NorthPark to see The Empire Strikes Back. Candy has a few bad moments at the movie, especially when Luke Sky-walker slices open that furry kangaroo thing he’s riding and crawls inside to keep warm, but she’s already convincing herself that the murder just could not have happened.
And so it goes. Bloom and Atkinson’s master stroke is their arrangement of the material, with alternating chapters showing Betty and Candy and their families drawn closer together through the church, a social accouterment that seems to lend little spiritual ballast to Candy’s life. We learn of Betty’s multiple physical problems and her difficulties with the children in her classes (later, Candy’s lawyer would use these imperfections to cast doubt on Betty’s stability). Other chapters show the ongoing investigation and the trial, culminating in the jury’s controversial decision. Along the way we meet Don Crowder, Candy’s lawyer, who is determined to have a super tan by the time the trial starts. Crowder thinks Candy’s frizzy Afro cut makes her look cocky, so he changes her style (“the least you can do is not look like a murderer”) and tells her to lose weight so she won’t look too much bigger and stronger than Betty Gore. And in a flash of wit rare in this kind of book, we learn the reactions of Candy’s friends: “People who hadn’t written or seen the Mont-gomerys in years were visiting Hallmark stores all over America, trying to find messages suitable for a family awaiting a murder indictment.” This alternating structure gives a sense of moving both backward and forward in time and probably takes us as close as we will get to the truth.
Of course, Bloom and Atkinson don’t pretend to have all the evidence of love and death in this bizarre case. Nobody will ever know Betty Gore’s side of the story. Whether Betty first threatened Candy with the axe, whether Candy could have fled rather than fought, whether Betty ever said “shhh’-the magic monosyllable that allegedly uncorked Candy’s rage-the answers to these questions are buried with Betty Gore. The writers’ reconstruction of the murder scene is a masterpiece of horror to rival Stephen King (the two women struggle on a floor slick with blood as the washing machine hums serenely in the background), but here, as elsewhere, they must follow Candy’s script.
Evidence of Lovebelongs to the same paradoxical genre as The Only Living Witness,the study of mass murderer Theodore Bundy by Hugh Aynesworth and Stephen G. Michaud. The better these books are, the worse they make us feel. Such books can provide no comforting catharsis or ennobling insights into the human spirit; instead, they make us almost ashamed to be human. Perhaps that feeling is an awkward testament to the power of Evidence of Love.If Candy Montgomery is “resolutely typical,” so much the worse for the rest of us.
The Greatest Honky Tonks in Texas by Bill Porterfield. Taylor Publishing Co., $19.95.
“WHAT THE HELL is a honky-tonk?” asks Bill Porterfield in his new book. Well might he ask. For our legions of transplanted Yankees and hordes of Yuppies whose roots are in air-conditioned shopping malls, not in the unforgiving soil of West Texas, it’s a good question indeed. If your childhood heroes were Eric Sevareid and John Lennon, not Ma Ferguson and Roy Acuff, chances are you’ve never even read about a honky-tonk, much less been honky-tonkin’.
But the question is merely rhetorical for Porterfield, a columnist with the Dallas Times Herald. He’s got the answer to that and other provocative questions about Texas in a book worth reading even by those who wouldn’t think of trucking off to Billy Bob’s-not to mention the Caravan East in Amarillo or the Purple Sage, just outside of Uvalde. In The Greatest Honky-Tonks in Texas, you’ll learn the famous answer to the caller’s questions in The Cotton-Eyed Joe. Better than that, you’ll read fascinating social history and a moving, honest memoir by a fine writer embarked on a dancer’s odyssey through Texas.
Porterfield’s rambling, anecdotal joumey begins with the refurbishing of his white 1955 Buick Special in what he admits is an attempt to recapture some of his youth. The Buick is an appropriate vehicle for this waltz across Texas, a sentimental journey starting in the present but yielding to the irresistible tug of the past. We meet Porterfield’s maternal grandfather, Henry Mack, who couldn’t keep his sons down on the farm, and his paternal grandfathei, Daddy Harrell, “the king of country dancing.” Porterfield, as proud of his redneck heritage as he is of his two-step, has wise words on that Southern archetype:
All you have to do to be a redneck is to have been born in the blood and to realize it and acknowledge it even if you hate it . . . You have to know and love the hymns even if you ’ve strayed. You must eat barbecue and chicken-fried steak, drink beer and bourbon, boss your lady (or try to), breed more kids and keep more dogs and cars than you can afford, hate the city and yearn for the country.
It also helps to frequent places like the Fat Mexican Cafe’ in Marion, Texas. The owner, Gloria, “would serve no mouth unless it had feet for dancing.” That policy worked well for Gloria, the Fat Mexican herself, who despite ponderous bulk could “dance the lightest feet off.” But it didn’t wash down well with two women’s libbers from New Jersey. They were denied service because, since the cafe was bereft of men that day, they obviously couldn’t dance, and since they couldn’t dance, they couldn’t eat. The two grew feisty and offered to dance together, but Gloria said that just wasn’t done around Marion. Someone’s right to something had been denied, so lawyers were summoned, and before long the Fat Mexican Cafe and its polecat tamales had gone the way of the Jim Crow laws. Porterfield wonders whether this was truly progress.
No purist, Porterfield knows that super-tonks like Billy Bob’s and Gilley’s are outrageously slick and fat with hype, but he welcomes them anyway. The essentials-the music and dancing and beer-are there among the tourists. “Times and ways change,” he writes. “At least at Gilley’s, like at any other honky-tonk, the girls get danced first and laid later.”
Still, time passes. What was biography becomes social history and then, I guess, archaeology. Writers like Porterfield sift the dust of that pre-urban cowboy world and revive those smiling drunkards in sequined suits, singing songs with open-hearted lyrics like Lefty Frizzell’s:
If you’ve got the money, honey, I’ve got the time We’ll go honky-tonkin’ and we’ll have a time.
“The accommodations were always tawdry,” Porterfield says of the honky-tonks of his youth, “but hell, so were we and our dreams.” What Porterfield does is what so many good writers do, given enough luck, time and pain. They accept and transmute the materials of their own lives, not the lives they might have had or should have had. They have a realization: Even though it’s not Greenwich Village or Bloomsbury or the court of the Sun King, this life can be made into art. Failing to learn this vital lesson, other writers fell silent or write books about sensitive people writing books. Porterfield learned, and his readers are the richer for it.
The Highland Park Woman by A.C Greene. Shearer Publishing, $13.95.
MY MAJOR COMPLAINT against A.C. Greene’s latest work is that these sharply etched, illuminating stories have been so long in coming. Greene, as always, has been busy. His reputation comes largely from his work as a historian (Dallas: The Deciding Years and A Place Called Dallas), but he has also written an excellent memoir of a place and time, A Personal Country, which chronicles his boyhood and young manhood in West Texas during the Thirties and Forties. A few years ago, Greene combined his skills as historian and literary critic to produce The Fifty Best Texas Books, a volume that sparked considerable controversy among partisans of those who made the list and those who didn’t. Along the way, Greene has served as a commentator on PBS and has become an all-purpose interpreter of Texas to the world, the man most likely to be called on by Eastern opinion makers to explain the Lone Star State.
Recently, Greene declared his freedom from “looking things up to see if they’re justifiable” and, putting on still another hat, began writing short stories. The result is The Highland Park Woman,stories that show that his time was well spent.
In the best fiction, the stories resist abstraction and refuse to yield some disembodied “theme” that substitutes for the flesh and blood of the fiction itself. To talk about Greene’s stories in terms of the breakup of the nuclear family or the debilitating effects of social mobility is to do them violence; to be sure, such ideas are present, but Greene’s work is a mosaic of concrete sights, smells and gestures and should be treated as such.
For instance, there is the wealthy woman on her gilded treadmill: “Alone too much, the Highland Pork woman becomes uneasy” and discovers griefs in life beyond not having enough money to “buy all she wants at Marie Leavell’s.” She declares that she is going to be a person and will attend her book club meeting if it is held “in a particularly interesting home.”
In another story, “The Girl at Cabe Ranch,” a historian comes back to his native West Texas to explore an old cavalry fort. He left home when he discovered that he liked “history and books” more than the “4-H Club and horses,” but he meets a young man who is fighting the same battle he fought. Although his girlfriend calls him an ignorant cowboy, the young man vows to stay on and work the land. Many writers have told us that we can’t go home again, but Greene rings a new change on the old theme.
Some of Greene’s stories are set in identifiable Dallas places, which lends an additional minor pleasure. But in one of these, “An Evening Out,” he seems to lose his ear for dialogue. Would any woman outside of a movie say, “I simply adore taking a lush, lost, degenerate, inferior trashy bastard and making a man out of him”? But it’s all redeemed when she snaps at her date: “I might upchuck and leave you right there on the sidewalk in a pool of eggs Benedict, champagne, caviar and roast beef.” What better way to show her disgust with her overfed life in a fur-lined trap?
James Dickey once called ours “the come-off-it generation,” afraid to dream or raise our hopes too high. Several of Greene’s stories explore the tension between the needed dream and the stifling reality and show the dangers of “coming off it.” In “The Rangers’ Raid on Happy Bottom, Texas,” the people of a backwater town turn the routine visit of two Texas Rangers into an event of epic proportions. Refusing to face the dull fact that the officers have only stopped off to eat lunch, they reveal their need for adventure and grandeur in their lives. Indeed, some of Greene’s stories suggest that when we stop dreaming, we start to die. In one of his best, “In the Mountains,” old Moose-horn Johnson is an ancient cook for a group of hunters. When he is finally made to see that he will never find gold, a lifelong obsession, he loses his reason for living: “It’s the way a man wants to do one thing, one big thing, before he dies.” At last, at the age of 70 or 80 or 90 (his mythmaking extends even to his date of birth), Moosehorn “comes off it,” faces the facts-and begins to die.
These 15 stories charm and compel in somany ways. The poignant “Nantucketing”and “Before Daylight” speak of loss and thefailure of relationships, showing that manythings are thicker than blood and strongerthan love-among them money, habit andambition. There are minor flaws; often,Greene’s quick takes and brief vignettesdon’t allow us time to care about hischaracters. But when he gives himself room,the result is a tender, painful, beautiful exploration of the human heart.