On John Graves and “Goodbye to a River”

I could wax all night on John Graves, just as I could Charles Bukowski. One a gentleman and a soldier, the other a drunken, fist-fighting postman. Neither have much in common except two things: I wanted to meet both but never did and I was affected strongly on the day each died. Bukowski passed in 1994 shortly after I graduated from university. John Graves passed away earlier today.

Graves was most noted for his 1960 book “Goodbye to a River.” As a book, or “text” as the Euros call it, it meant a great deal of something very complicated to me mostly because of when I read it and how I came to read it. I was 40 when I first read it and was still living under the illusion I had a bit of my youth yet. And then I read “Goodbye to a River,” written at a time when Graves had come home from years of travel, finally settled down and took one last trip down the river of his youth, the Upper Brazos (mine is the upper Nueces, but that is another story). The book moved me deeply, in ways I didn’t understand. In ways I was unprepared to understand, (my wife saw how it changed me and it scared her).

I re-read it a year later and then it all came to me. Graves’ book, “Goodbye to a River” is about a man saying goodbye to his youth and accepting middle age, jsut as much, if not more than it was a man saying goodbye to a river that might soon be damned up beyond oblivion (it never was). It’s a truth I’m still not willing or ready to accept, but it’s a truth no less. I wrestle with it daily.

I wish I had met Graves. I fancy he would have liked me, might have seen a bit of the rogue and raconteur of his own younger self in me, but it was not to be.

Today the author of a book most dear to me died and for that, I am sad. I leave you with a bit of his prose, a little bit of what he taught me, hoping I might relearn:

“But in truth such gravities were not what salted the tales I could read, looking off over the low country from the point atop the bluffs. Mankind is one thing; a man’s self is another. What that self is tangles itself knottily with what his people were, and what they came out of. Mine came out of Texas, as did I. If those were louts, they were my own louts. Origin being as it is an accident outside the scope of one’s will. . . if a man can’t escape what he came from, we would most of us still be peasants in Old World hovels. But if, having escaped or not, he wants in some way to know himself, define himself, and tried to do it without taking into account the thing he came from, he is writing without any ink his pen.” ~John Graves “Goodbye to a River”

There was something always comforting knowing Graves was up in Glen Rose, still alive and breathing, as if his very dignitas would hold the craziness of Texas together a bit longer. But no more. All the good ones are now gone.

And me, well, I’m home, in Texas for now, and my pen is full. Let there be an accounting of what I am. John Graves will be missed.