Up in that part of state just east of the Cap Rock, south of the Red River and west and north of Wichita Falls is a region of the country the residents continue to call “East Texas,” although, even at 70 mph it is hours from Amarillo, Lubbock or Spur, a half-day from San Angelo and Odessa, and a long, hard, hot day from Ozona or El Paso.
It is a part of the country that rhetorician Jim Cordon once called “terra incognito,” forgotten by most of Texas, ignored by everyone else. It is a hard land, filled with rattlesnakes, mesquite, winters that freeze livestock and people, summers that dry the ground so hard it cracks.
It is an area where sandstorms, “blue northers,” tornadoes, floods, droughts, insects and wild animals are the norm, and where the greatest accomplishment many folks can boast about is their ability to seek prosperity in an environment that is at its best inhospitable and at its worst hostile.
Form this wild but fertile “Greenbelt” land, little of great significance has emerged, but in his newest book*, Chillicothe native Robert Flynn, now novelist-in-residence at Trinity University in San Antonio, has extracted from his imagination a town and a populace that will have an impact on the memory of its readers. The town’s name is the novel’s title, Wanderer Springs.
The occasion for the story of Wanderer Springs is the death of Jessie Tooley. She was the mother of Roma Dean, who drowned as a teen-ager skinny-dipping in a local swimming hole. Will Callaghan, now an historian working for the Texas Institute for Cultural Research in San Antonio, receives the news of Jessie’s demise. Because he was the boy who was somehow responsible for the sinful moonlight swim that brought about Roma Dean’s death, he feels obligated to return for her mother’s funeral, ostensibly to research material for a book about the town that his boss wants him to write.
As he pilots his car northward out of San Antonio across the barren fields of west-central Texas, his mind casts back to the stories of the townspeople, the farmers, ranchers and outcasts who made up the subjects of a newspaper column on country history he had written when he was living in Wanderer Springs years before. The stories tumble from his mind in a seemingly pell-mell fashion, relating to each other only through incidents, marriages, murders, comedies and surprising pathos.
But as tale follows tale they are interrupted only by Will’s personal story, which is intimately interwoven with these accounts of the eccentric and the insane, the beautiful and the damned. The complete history of Wanderer Springs emerges in a mesh of connection that relate every individual he speaks of to every other – and all of them to Wanderer Springs.
Will’s involvement in the present-day town becomes personal. The painful echoes of Roma Dean’s tragedy assail him as do the even more painful memories of his deceased wife, Delores, who also died because of him. Through it all, the places, people and events haunt him and ultimately cause him to question the value of his identification with a place and a time that are forever gone. At the end of the book, Will must try to come to terms with who he has been and with who he is.
What keeps Wanderer Springs moving as a novel is Flynn’s masterful use of language. His descriptions and tales of Wanderer Springs’ people flow from the page.
Flynn’s style prevents nostalgia from deteriorating into melodrama, history from growing into legend.
The book’s theme is not belied by Flynn’s gentle use of humor. His turn of phrase and figurative language blend with metaphor in a tour de force. In describing one character, Otis Hopkins, the future banker of Wanderer Springs, Will recalls that Otis’ Aunt Velma promised him a shotgun if he memorized the New Testament. “Otis memorized it in six months, Aunt Velma gave him the shotgun, and he blew her head off with it. Folks used to say, ‘She should have required him to memorize the whole Bible; that would have given her another year.’”
Simple faith in conflict with liberal ideas is characterized through his description of Larissa Bel, who “died of reading,” and who greeted Indians who stole her chickens with a lecture on the Eighth Commandment and ordered them to return to Oklahoma. “Larissa,” Will recalls, “believed that the only Good Indian was a Baptist deacon.”
In lamenting the loss of a one-time flame, Rebel, to her conversion to “hard-nosed” Baptist fundamentalism that brooks no nonsense when the topic of church is considered, Will noted, “Wit in a Baptists is like subtlety in a snake; it’s been heard of.”
There is wisdom in Wanderer Springs; there also is poetry, and humor, and pain, and charity, and love, and wit, and understanding – and these important elements are couched in a friendly, careful prose that reads like a letter from home.
For all these reason, and more Wanderer Springs emerges as an important novel. When the book is finish, the reader is left with wisdom.
–Clay Reynolds, author of Ars Poetica
*Editor’s note: This review was first printed in 1987 in the Dallas Morning News.