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February 2007

All Over the Map
by Rob Grace
February 28, 2007


Dear reader, I usually don't ask much of you.

Just about every week, you come to this page for a visit. Some of you tell me you look forward to reading my mostly mundane ramblings. Others, I'm sure, might check out this space simply to see what Mr. All About Me is pretentiously writing. Either way, I thank you for your visit. While you're here, check out our roster of fine sponsors, and support them. And when you visit their establishment, tell them you read about 'em in Arkansas Weekly.

Now, where was I?

Oh, so I appreciate your readership very much, and as you know, I don't ask much of you. However, if you will allow me, I do want you to pay very close attention to this particular column. And, I will warn you, this piece concerns a book recommendation.

From the reader comments I receive, I gather that many of you don't really like the columns where I recommend certain movies, music and books. Heaven knows, I've had more than enough people ask me why I raved about films such as The Royal Tennenbaums or Magnolia ("What was the deal with the frogs?" is a consistent question I get regarding the latter flick.).

But, please -- work with me, here. Because I have read one of the finest books I've come across in the last five years or so. And I think it would be worth the time to seek it out and purchase a copy of your own.

The book, and it's really not a book per se -- it's a collection of previously published columns and essays, is by Pete Dexter.

Now, some of you may remember that name. I've written about Dexter before. He is, I believe, the finest living American writer -- period. He didn't start writing novels until he was 38. Before that he was (in no particular order) an acclaimed columnist, a gas station attendant, occasional barfly, newspaper reporter, construction worker and the victim of a particularly brutal assault.

The assault is somewhat noteworthy. At the time, he was a popular columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. One piece, about a drug deal gone fatally wrong, offended the brother of the victim in the transaction. Dexter, being the gentleman he is, went down to a dive in the worst neighborhood in Philadelphia where the brother tended bar to try to mend some fences.

He left the bar with half of his upper teeth missing. So, he decided to go and get a back-up in the form of his buddy, Randall "Tex" Cobb. Cobb, for those of you who don't know, almost took the WBC World Championship title from Larry Frazier. He's also an actor most famous for the darkly funny biker from Hell (literally) in Raising Arizona. He is a big, scary man.

When Dexter and Cobb returned to the bar for some payback, the duo was met by 30 or so men with tire irons and baseball bats. As noted in the new book, Cobb turned to Dexter and said, "I hope this is the local softball team."

It wasn't, of course. The second time Dexter left the bar, he was not only still missing most of his upper teeth, but he also had a broken back and pelvis. Cobb suffered a broken arm so badly damaged, many say it cost him his boxing career.

Pete Hamill, the legendary journalist, details the Dexter/Cobb melee much better in his introduction to Paper Trails: True Stories of Confusion, Mindless Violence, and Forbidden Desires, a Surprising Number of Which Are Not About Marriage. And this, as you've probably gathered, is the book I want you to buy. Hamill, like me, is an unabashed Dexter fan, but unfortunately, I don't believe Dexter is as appreciated as he should be.

He did win the National Book Award for Paris Trout, and that title remains his most popular, I'm sure. That's how I came across Dexter. Looking for a vacation read in San Antonio during the early 1990s, I came across Paris Trout in a bookstore. The odd title, which happens to be the name of the very evil main character, drew my attention, but the novelty wore off as soon as I read the first page. This was writing that stripped away pretension and artifice -- it sunk right to the bone. I tore through the book then picked up his previous two, God's Pocket (it's out of print, according to Amazon.com) and Deadwood -- the latter of which is surprisingly similar to the recent HBO series of the same name. (Dexter wanted to sue, but as he implies in his very funny forward to Paper Trails, his lawyers told him he'd get nowhere.)

Dexter went on to write a dark gangster novel, Brotherly Love (also currently out of print), and a Florida-set mystery called The Paperboy in 1996. Then, much to my frustration, he disappeared. He wrote an occasional screenplay, but for years, even a Google on Dexter, turned up dead ends. He finally resurfaced in 2003 with Train, a semi-noir novel about a black caddy in 1950s Los Angeles and the bond he forges with a quirky, yet mysterious police detective.

And now, we have the non-fiction Paper Trails, a compilation of 82 newspaper columns and essays Dexter wrote for the Philadelphia Daily News, the Sacramento Bee, Esquire, and other publications. The book is not only a wonderful introduction to the literary talent of which Pete Dexter has been blessed, but it's also a collection of mesmerizing, heartbreaking and hilarious essays and columns that perfectly exemplify so many facets of living life in this sometimes insane world.

Each piece is a beautifully crafted work. The simple tale of a stray cat that wound up on Dexter's porch becomes an emotional story about loss and the fear that goes with being a parent. Then you have the yarn of two drunken misfits who decide to start a carpet shampooing business and how one almost ends up dead before the first carpet can be cleaned. Dexter also tells the story of a plane trip he took with a silently crying child sitting next to him and his vain attempts to cheer him up, and his extremely funny article on his fascination with the breast size of his neighbor's wife is worth the $26 price of the book alone. (You can get a copy for $17 on Amazon -- hint, hint.)

Paper Trails is simply superb writing from a guy who deserves to have a more prominent place in our pantheon of respected literary giants. You likely won't find it in the book section of the neighborhood Wal-Mart or Hasting's.

 

Instead, of course, you'll find the latest Danielle Steel or Dr. Phil self-help muck taking up space. My suggestion: head to Amazon, the closest Barnes & Noble, or the fine independent Little Rock Bookstore, Wordsworth & Co.

It's more than worth the trip or shipping costs.

Support an underappreciated writer and discover one all in one shot by picking up Paper Trails by Pete Dexter. (Ecco, 289 pp., $25.95).

Thank you for your time and attention.

You can write Rob in care of Arkansas Weekly, or e-mail him at max@maxfm.com. You can view Rob's blog at http://suburbanvoodoo.blogspot.com. Or just click the link on the front page of www.maxfm.com, the web site for The Max 93One FM.
 


All Over the Map
by Rob Grace
February 21, 2007

 

In late 2005, Art Buchwald, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington humorist, realized his kidneys were failing. At the time, his doctors and family insisted he immediately begin dialysis treatment. Instead, he opted to let nature take its course. In early 2006, he moved into a hospice, and with a steady stream of family and friends visiting, decided to begin his goodbyes.

The prognosis was three weeks.

Three months later, Buchwald was still enjoying visitors. About seven or eight months down the line, Buchwald left the hospice, alive and kicking -- a medical miracle.

Before we get too happy, it must be said that Buchwald finally succumbed to his kidney problems. Yet before he died at his son's home earlier this year, Buchwald managed to write a book about his unexpected encore.

It was that book, Too Soon To Say Goodbye, that I was reading when -- speak of the devil -- my right kidney decided to revolt.

Well, I wasn't reading the book exactly when my kidney revolted...I was actually at my desk, around 9:20 on a Monday morning, when it felt as if someone had kicked me in the side.

The pain lasted through the day until I finally hit the emergency room late that night. Some pain meds helped through the night and the next day, and then after some tests, the doctors surmised a blood clot had hit my right kidney that Monday morning, causing my extreme discomfort.

So, for the first time since I was three years old, I entered a hospital as a patient. In quick succession, I had a gown with no back, an I.V. pumping me full of medicine, and a nifty bed I could move up and down by the punch of a button.

But, any type of playfulness was already quite subdued by my pain and med-induced grogginess. All I wanted was sleep while the nurses and doctors planned my recovery.

* * *

I had, in the parlance of one of my doctors, a kidney attack -- the same thing as a heart attack: a clog in the plumbing resulting in the shutdown of one of my major organs.

Of course, now we need to know what caused the blood clot, so I'm on some blood thinning medicine and will likely have to see some other docs in Little Rock in a week or so, but I'm out of the hospital and moving very slowly.

Recovering has been odd; it's as if my body has been through a heart attack, I suppose. The most mundane tasks can tire me quickly, but I can slowly feel my strength build each day, and thanks to the most generous friends and family, I've been very well-fed.

You know, I do enjoy the attention and the food a health scare brings, but of course, I would be insane to wish this on anyone else. And really, my clot-in-the-kidney thing is nowhere near as traumatic or serious as other problems that could affect me, so I do count my blessings. All of this has left me with a heavy sense of humility and made me appreciate those with much more serious health dilemmas.

Finally, I must say this: my experience at White River Medical Center was top-notch. All of the nurses, aides, doctors, etc. were helpful and extremely comforting. I cannot say enough about their hospitality and concern. Thank you.

* * *

One item regarding my health problem I don't particularly enjoy is the fact that I have to inject myself with blood thinners twice a day.

Inject is not a verb I enjoy when it applies to me.

I've always hated needles, and giving myself shots twice a day in my belly is not fun -- particularly since my rock-hard abdomen has the habit of bending the needles.

Kidding.

Actually, one of the kind WRMC nurses gave me a crash course in giving myself the injections, and they've been relatively painless.

And, Heaven knows, I have plenty of blubber in my tummy to cushion the needle.

 

You can write Rob in care of Arkansas Weekly, or e-mail him at max@maxfm.com. You can view Rob's blog at http://suburbanvoodoo.blogspot.com. Or just click the link on the front page of www.maxfm.com, the web site for The Max 93One FM.

All Over the Map
by Rob Grace
February 7, 2007

 

In a recent issue of the Batesville Daily Guard, longtime Batesville businessman Doyle Rogers details how he and some other area leaders tried to convince the General Services Administration to build the new Social Security office downtown. Rogers and the other local folks presented the GSA a variety of viable locations on Main Street for the new office, detailing each site's specific positives.

Yet the GSA, in all of their bureaucratic genius, decided that locating the office in the heart of downtown Batesville would not be the best move for area residents. Their concerns included their opinion that downtown Batesville was "deteriorating," despite the fact that Main Street has an occupancy rate around 96% -- a sign, Rogers says, of not only a vibrant downtown, but also a healthy community. But the GSA also observed that folks in the five county area served by the Social Security office would have trouble finding Batesville's downtown.

How many of you reading this area-wide publication can tell me where Main Street is in Batesville? Now, how many can tell me where Dry Kiln Road is in Batesville?

The new Social Security office is located on Dry Kiln Road, which is about a half-mile past Wal-Mart, tucked off Harrison Street behind the local health club. It's also located at one of the most dangerous curves in town.

For our area senior citizens to travel on the insane thoroughfare that is Harrison Street, and then make a turn off a hazardous curve only proves that the GSA knows nothing about the proper and efficient locating of our government's buildings. Of course, utilizing the words "proper" and "efficient" about most federal operations is a misnomer, anyway -- but that's another column.

* * *

Besides highlighting the baffling and questionable moves our government can make, I also wanted to underscore the passion Doyle Rogers has for this community. Rogers is 88 years old and still one of the sharpest businessmen in the country. The man who built Little Rock's Excelsior Hotel (now the Peabody) and who is Chairman of Little Rock's Metropolitan National Bank still runs most of his business transactions out of a small office in Batesville. With two other Arkansas businessmen, he recently helped to close one of the largest real estate transactions ever funded by Arkansas banks -- the purchase of three shopping malls, including Fayetteville's Northwest Arkansas Mall. He's known to zip around the state and country, but most of the week, Batesville is home. Doyle, and his wife Raye, are not only longtime residents of Batesville, but they have also generously and lovingly contributed millions of dollars to area institutions.

To say that they are pillars of this community is an understatement.

In the personal office of Doyle Rogers, the first thing one will notice is the absence of a computer on his spotless desktop. Nevertheless, Rogers can quickly deliver real estate facts, property values and small details of real estate deals from years past with only the aid of memory and experience. Another desk behind him is stacked high with files, proposals and stacks of plans and diagrams, but in a moment's notice, he can turn around and quickly pull a file from the seemingly unwieldy mess that references some study done in the mid-`90s and have it open to make a critical point.

To put it mildly, Rogers knows his stuff.

And his genuine aggravation with how the entire Social Security office relocation evolved (or devolved might be a better term) is an example of how much Rogers cares about the continuing growth of the Batesville area. He didn't have anything to gain by the Social Security office relocating to Main Street; his only motive was ensuring that downtown Batesville could still build on its already historic strengths and remain a vital economic portion of this community.

For a man who could be retired, playing tennis, and fully enjoying life anywhere he desires, Doyle Rogers is instead orchestrating detailed business deals across the country. And, he is still passionate about the growth of this little patch of Arkansas we call home.

Folks my age and younger would do well and try to emulate and follow his example as this area moves into the future.

You can write Rob in care of Arkansas Weekly, or e-mail him at max@maxfm.com. You can view Rob's blog at http://suburbanvoodoo.blogspot.com. Or just click the link on the front page of www.maxfm.com, the web site for The Max 93One FM.

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