Elmer Kelton: A Good Man to Ride the River With

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Greg Kendall Ball

Credit: Greg Kendall Ball

Over a 50-year career, Kelton published more than 40 novels, The Time It Never Rained and The Good Old Boys garnering the highest praise. In his career, Kelton won enough awards to stagger a packhorse. The Good Old Boys became a made-for-TV movie starring Tommy Lee Jones. Four of his books have won the Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and eight have taken home the Spur Award from the Western Writers of America. He’s been honored in several literary societies, given lifetime achievement recognition, and granted honorary degrees from Texas universities.

With hopes of my own literary accolades, I left the small Texas town in which I was raised in 1962 for the University of Texas then Harvard University, planning to become the next Hemingway, adored in New York parlors.

At some point, I realized I was a fifth-generation Texan, and that I couldn’t wash it off. I went back home, started cowboying for $500 a month, and wrote for cow papers, including the Livestock Weekly, which Kelton edited for 22 years.

At the time I met him, I hadn’t read any of his novels. When I finally got around to reading The Time It Never Rained, I was astounded by how good it was. Every word, every sentence, every line of description was a work of high craftsmanship; the book as a whole was a quiet masterpiece. Reading it, I wasn’t sure whether I should stand up and cheer, or weep because I hadn’t written it myself.

Greg Kendall Ball

Credit: Greg Kendall Ball

Like my uncles, Kelton was parsimonious with his language, dealing out words like a poker player who had money riding on every card. He and my uncles also had the same rancher/cowboy sense of humor:sly, understated, and collateralized by a lifetime of careful observation. My uncles were fluent in that approachto humor. Kelton was an absolute master of it.

Elmer and I came from the same breed of people,and our grandparents might have even known each other. Both our families ranched in the same part of West Texas and it was a small world back then. If they were acquainted, they probably met once every five or 10 years, talked for 15 minutes about family, grass, and rainfall, then went on their way—never doubting that the other party could be trusted with a sack of gold, a herd of cattle, or another man’s daughter.

They were, to use the cowboy expression, “goodmen to ride the river with.”

That kind of bedrock honesty was built into all of Elmer’s writing. He had an unspoken bond with his audience that he would never tell them a lie. In ranching circles, that has been accepted practice fora century and a half, but it’s not so common in the entertainment world.

There is a kind of inertial force at work in artistic fields that pulls the people in them toward loose interpretations and imitations of the truth. Sometimes it’s motivated by money-lust or political correctness,but the most common reason might be simple laziness:It’s always easier to repeat accepted verities than to seek out and test truth every day.

Elmer sought out and tested truth every day. Hewas a scholar in the best sense of the word. He read the work of other writers, but also did his own research.He used his own eyes and ears, and measured the results with his own internal set of scales. Those scales were calibrated by his experiences in West Texas,and they reflected the values of the communities where he lived and worked.

Greg Kendall Ball

Credit: Greg Kendall Ball

An American Novelist

When Elmer died in August 2009, I lost a good friend. I knew his wife and two sons. I autographed Hank the Cowdog books for his grandchildren,and he signed and personalized books for me.He was always generous and encouraging. The last time I saw him, at the San Angelo Book Festival in2008, a year before he died, he autographed a copy of Sandhills Boy , saying, “For John—who has helped give thousands of youngsters a love of reading.”

Over the years, we exchanged letters and visited atWestern Writers of America conventions. He contributed a number of funny stories to my biography of Ace Reid, whom he knew well and whose art he admired. I was thrilled and honored when Elmer agreed to write the foreword for Prairie Gothic , saying,“[Erickson] makes us feel the emotions of the many characters he brings to life. Some are happy, some sad,some simply frustrated, but all are engaging.”

We knew each other for 21 years, but it was an odd kind of friendship. I never set foot in his house,or he in mine, and we never talked on the phone. Is aw him at book-and-author affairs in Abilene, SanAngelo, Austin, Amarillo, and Lubbock, but our conversations rarely lasted more than 10 or 15 minutes. We talked about family, rainfall, grass conditions…and that was about it.

It used to bother me that we had so little to say to each other, but I finally figured out that we didn’t need to talk. There was nothing I could tell him about myself that he didn’t already know. In typical rancher fashion, he had sized me up in his own time and had figured out that I was an honest man, worthy of his respect. I had done the same with him.

His father, Buck Kelton, foreman of the Jigger Y ranch in Crane County, and my great-uncles in Gaines County, used that same method for judging cowboys, cattle buyers, and friends. They simply learned what they needed to know and burned up very few words in the process.

Elmer built his literary reputation one brick at a time, without advertising or public relations hype, and it was a slow process. He started out writing short stories for the “pulp” magazines. From there, he moved into writing mass-market paperback Westerns, and then to hardcover Westerns. Somewhere along the way, he ceased being a “writer of Westerns” and became an American novelist.

Doubleday, the original publisher of The Time It Never Rained, let the book go out of print, and wise heads at TCU Press snapped up the rights and brought out a new edition in 1984. Judy Alter, director of the press there, asked if I would write a few lines for the back jacket. I said I would be honored. I wrote: “The Time It Never Rained is not just one of the best novels ever written by a Texan. It is one of the treasures of American literature of any age or time. Our great-grandchildren will still be reading Elmer Kelton.”

Greg Kendall Ball

Credit: Greg Kendall Ball

The Good Old Boys

The Time It Never Rained was a great novel—Elmer’s personal favorite and the favorite of many of his loyal fans—but I was even more impressed with The Good Old Boys (1978). As a working cowboy, I had glimpsed the life of Hewey Calloway, the story’s lead character, and with that perspective, was able to examine every detail of Elmer’s story at a microscopic level.

There was not one false word or counterfeit emotion in the entire book. I doubt that anyone has ever written, or will ever write, a better, deeper portrayal of the American cowboy. Elmer understood the lure of manly adventure, the wild exhilaration of matching wits and physical strength against horses and cattle and weather, but he also understood that the cowboy’s story often has a sad ending.

When Hewey cancels his engagement with Spring Renfro and rides off with his cowboy pal Snort Yarnell (what a great name for a bachelor cowboy!) on another wild adventure, those of us who have lived Hewey’s life, or who have loved someone who did, are gnawed by an uneasy feeling.

On the next-to-last page of the book, Hewey is about to ride away and has this exchange with his young nephew, Tommy:

“Tears had cut a trail down Tommy’s face. He put his arms around Hewey’s neck and hugged hard. ‘You’ll be back, won’t you, Uncle Hewey? You ain’t goin’ to let some old bronc kill you?’”

Hewey says, “Button, I ain’t never been killed in my life.”

That perfect diamond of a sentence not only captured the swagger of Hewey’s approach to life, but also its loneliness. We know that he will eventually find a horse that kills him, or that he will spend a sad old age cleaning spittoons in a pool hall in some little West Texas town, telling his stories to eye-rolling teenage boys who have no way of understanding who he used to be.

When I heard that Elmer had sold the movie rights to The Good Old Boys (made for TV in 1995), I was happy for him, and wrote him a letter of congratulation. But I was also worried. It often happens that a good book suffers the fate of being translated into a bad movie.

I didn’t think there was a writer, director, or actor in Hollywood who could preserve the honesty of Hewey Calloway’s story in the film medium. I was wrong. Tommy Lee Jones played the lead role, co-wrote the screenplay, directed the film, and succeeded in capturing the integrity and depth of Elmer’s story. From start to finish, he was attentive to the objective reality that shaped all of Elmer’s work, a powerful sense of place.

Elmer was never comfortable with aesthetic systems that played fast and easy with the facts. No doubt, this reflected his training as a professional journalist, but it had a deeper source in his being the son, grandson, and great-grandson of ranch people—people who came from somewhere and were rooted in something.

To him, place was not just a snapshot of pretty scenery. It was a swirl of complex emotions and relationships accrued by people whose lives were shaped by one specific patch of soil, and by the elements of nature that dispensed blessings and curses upon it. In Elmer’s novels, place wasn’t incidental or optional. It was an incubator of truth.

Tommy Lee Jones understood this and protected Kelton’s vision through the process of translating written words into visual images. His attention todetail is breathtaking, and the film doesn’t containa false word or scene. The result is a great movie. I have watched it at least 30 times, and it gets better every time.

I have yet to read a list of great Western movies that even mentions The Good Old Boys. To me, that isa stunning omission. If The Good Old Boys isn’t thebest Western movie ever made, it surely ranks in thetop five. When Jones delivers Hewey’s line at the end of the film, “Button, I ain’t never been killed in my life,” it brings mist to my eyes.

Literary Fame

As a young writer, I made a careful study ofElmer Kelton and the way he conducted himself as a producer of cultural material. I came to the conclusion that he could have sold a lot more books and made a lot more money if he’d cut a few corners, blurred a few lines, and lowered his standards just a bit.

But he didn’t. He found the kind of fame hewanted and it took him a whole lifetime to collectit. Along the way, he “kept his day job,” as he often described it, working as an agricultural journalist: 15years as farm and ranch editor for the San AngeloStandard Times , five years as editor of Sheep and GoatRaiser Magazine , and 22 years as associate editor ofLivestock Weekly (his son, Steve Kelton, now holds that position and has done a splendid job).

It always amazed me that Elmer could write all day about livestock markets and range conditions, then write novels at night, coming up with stories that were not merely passable, but good. I couldn’t have done it, but Elmer had honed the process down to a sharp edge. His “day job” not only kept him in constant contact with characters and story material for his novels, but it also gave him a good reason to say “no” to people with money, influence, and cheap ideas.

Since he already had a job, he didn’t need their money. Elmer was never seduced by the literary trends that have steered the American novel toward darkness and absurdity. He charted his own course. It wasn’t glamorous, just honest.

And he was revered by the people in his own region— a great and rare accomplishment for a novelist. Glenn Dromgoole, an Abilene bookstore owner and book reviewer, said, “I’ve never known a writer who was as loved by his readers. People would come in for a book signing, and it was like they were coming in to see a good friend.”

Whether we remember Elmer through his art or his life, it’s all the same. He was a good man to ride the river with.