Thursday, September 11, 2008

Willie Morris and the funny nature of fame

The arc of Willie Morris's career shows that you never know what your legacy will be. He was the editor of the legendary Texas Observer (well, legendary to Texas liberals and Molly Ivins fans anyway)and also the editor of Harper's Magazine, where he nourished its reputation for cutting-edge content.

Yet, odds are good that none of this is ringing any bells with you. You would, however, instantly recognize the title My Dog Skip. Even if you've never read the book, you've probably seen the movie, or you've at least heard of it. But, as usual, the book is much better. I first read it right around this time of year eight years ago. The cat we'd had since I was a teenager was not doing so well, and I knew it was only a matter of time. Although the book (like almost every book about an animal) has a sad ending, the rest it is a beautiful tribute to the relationship between young Willie and his wonderful dog, Skip. I'm not exaggerating, either: Skip could play baseball and football, purchase his own bologna and even drive a car (if Willie was down on the floor steering and working the pedals for him).

The tale is the very essence of why people own pets, why they put themselves through the hassle of taking in something that can never talk back to them, teaching it how to live in house, cleaning the mess off it when it gets dirty, and all the while knowing that it'll end with you sobbing and digging a hole in your backyard. By Morris' own admission, Skip was the brother he never had in human form. Many pet owners probably view their pets the same way. One New Yorker article on people who spend large amounts of money on veterinary bills stated that something like 85% of pet owners told their pets every day that they loved them, while 90% thought of themselves as their pets' parents (I was actually surprised the percentages were that low). Morris himself described writing about the death of Skip in a subsequent book as one of the hardest things he'd ever written about, including the death of his own father.

Aside from pet ownership, Willie Morris captures childhood very well in this book. It's evocative of a simpler time -- not the post-World-War-II South (decidedly not simpler if you were the wrong color) but of childhood itself. There's an innocence and sweetness to his reminiscenses of camping at the grave of the witch, of finding and trying to nuture a sick kitten, and of all the trouble he got into when Skip followed him to school. Morris's writing is so vivid that you can smell the freshly mowed grass on the football field and taste the Coca-Cola he drank on hot summer days.

I read two of his other books, My Cat Spit McGee and Taps that I really liked. Sadly, these were his last two: he died in 1999. I tried one of his earlier books last year and didn't like it at all, but the reason why I love Willie Morris is for the vivid, evocative, emotional style of his last three books.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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