“Our Time Together”: Remembering Allen Wier
By Richard BauschMarch 26, 2022
I asked, “Can I see it?”
“It’s long,” he said. “You don’t need a project that big on your plate.”
“Well,” I said, “send it along, if you feel like it. I’d like to see it.”
We left it there and went on with my visit, talking and laughing with the others and meeting with students. It was a good time, and afterward I went back north to my own work. I was writing stories and had just sent back the page proofs of my novel In the Night Season. When a big box was delivered to my porch two weeks later, I thought it must be 15 or so copies of a foreign edition of one of my previous novels. It was A Cloud of Witnesses, all 1,153 pages of it, with a note saying, “Take your time with this (heh, heh).”
For a moment, I was perplexed. But I said to my then-wife, “You know what I’m gonna do? I’m gonna sit at my desk with a pencil and go through this line by line. I love the guy, and he’s been such a good friend. I’m gonna do it.”
So I sat down that very afternoon and began.
Three hours later, I had not used the pencil once. Three days later, I was still caught up in it, reading through the hours I would usually be writing. I was completely in awe of the magnitude of the novel’s conception and the insight and penetrating psychology present on every page.
A bit of background: I had known of Allen Wier for close to a decade, first through the books, then from our mutual friend George Garrett’s repeated assertions that we would be pals. I had finally met him in Washington, DC, in June 1989 at the Museum of Natural History, a surprise 60th birthday party for Garrett. My twin brother, Bobby, and I were seated at a table with Allen and two other people. We ended up talking to Wier, not about writing but about our children.
And that began the friendship that grew until he was one of the few people I let know me the way a brother knows a brother.
I’d had him to my university to give a reading and visit classes, and we sat in the bar afterward with several students and talked about the work of writers we loved and of the ones we knew personally and admired. We went on for a while about Garrett — there were always several Garrett stories to tell — and about others: Wright Morris, Grace Paley, James Dickey, Eudora Welty, Peter Taylor, and others who were senior to us but whom we knew. We were still in teaching mode with these students, who were very smart and curious and eager to know whatever we could tell them about these people who were our colleagues and friends.
And they were just that: colleagues and friends. But he and I were brothers, and I felt it profoundly for the first time that late evening as I watched him go on about Wright Morris, who was then living alone and forgotten in an assisted living facility — though he had won the National Book Award twice — and had written to Allen lamenting the fact that his most recent novel, Plains Song, had gone largely unnoticed. I saw Allen’s passion about good work and his fierceness about it — his belief that it mattered even if the world ignored it or forgot it. He so clearly believed in the work for itself, and his way of talking about it all was deeply heartening because it was so reasonable and gently admonitory; the work was terribly important more for its possible reader than for the writer. Later, we told jokes — to each other as much as those folks we were with. I was moved again by his passion, as by the dark eyes and his way of smiling that turned those eyes into little black crescents, a man whose interest seemed always outward, and whose soft drawl made the people around him calm, somehow. He and I told jokes to each other and together, and I used to say that while people laugh at the punchlines of the jokes I tell, they laugh all the way through the ones he tells.
There is something about jokes that should be said here: we shared a love for them and understood them as part of an actual body of literature that was oddly not studied in college folk literature programs. But a joke is a miniature story, containing all the elements of fiction, and when Allen Wier told a joke, even a joke I knew, the effect was always laughter.
After that night with the students, we went to my house and sat up sipping his favorite whiskey, Lagavulin, very slowly, until it was time to take him to the airport for his 8:30 flight back to Alabama the next morning. In that time, he told me about his first marriage, its dissolution and what he went through, and then we spoke of his wife, Donnie, and their new son, and how happy life was for him then. Because he was such an extraordinary storyteller, the events he described were vivid, and by turns uncomplainingly rueful or hilarious. These weren’t the sort of hero tales you encounter with certain self-absorbed tale-tellers where the speaker gets all the snappy lines. These were incidents of mistaken judgments, misconceptions, falters, given with impressive grace and thoroughness. In one, he described purchasing a gun because he had been threatened by his intended’s ex-husband. One night, crossing a schoolyard stealthily to see her, gun in his pocket for fear of the possibly lurking ex, he heard a sudden sound and whirled to draw down on a school air conditioner that had started up. I would ask him to tell that story many times over the years. It made me laugh every time.
Allen often spoke about being born into a family of storytellers. His parents were flower dealers in South Texas, and he saw the world on both sides of the US-Mexico border while he was young. Those early impressions made it into his debut novel, Blanco. Along the route to a distinguished career as a professor, novelist, and story writer, he accumulated numerous honors and awards: a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and the John Dos Passos Prize for Literature. A residency from the Dobie Paisano Fellowship, given by the University of Texas and the Texas Institute of Letters, gave him the time to write A Cloud of Witnesses on the same ranch once owned by the Texas literary giant J. Frank Dobie.
Now, about that novel: I got so caught up in the manuscript that I took to carrying chapters of it on the road. In fact, just a week after it arrived, already 500 pages in, I was driving from Broad Run, Virginia, to New York to give a reading, and it suddenly occurred to me that I might have forgotten to pack 100 or so pages of it. I was already past Washington, DC, nearing Baltimore, but I pulled into the last rest stop along the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, got out of the car, opened the trunk, and peered into my suitcase. There the pages were. I fully intended to drive the 70 miles back if they hadn’t been there.
I knew that what I was reading was a novel with true greatness — Tolstoyan in scope but actually with a wider field of characters than even Tolstoy attempted. It is in fact a portrait of the whole United States in the late 19th century — men and women, masters and slaves, Native Americans, farmers, hunters, cheaters, killers, including a pair of twins who are on opposite sides of the Civil War (which breaks out in the first quarter of the book), and who, over the course of the narrative, come within 15 feet of each other and never meet.
Over the next couple of years, he sought a publisher for the book. I tried my publisher, who loved and admired it but felt it would be a hard sell, for its size and for the fact that Allen hadn’t published a novel in more than 10 years. Through that time, we were in touch almost daily, and he never once complained. He just went on being himself, writing stories, enjoying life with Donnie, raising their son. The heartbreak of the search for a publisher never came up. Each rejection was simply reported like the weather. He finally changed the title to Tehano, which is from a Spanish word, Tejano, meaning a Texan of Mexican descent, which later became a Comanche word, simply for Texan. (And it is Texas where much of the action takes place, but the expanse of its narrative scope takes us from the swamps of Louisiana to the other side of the Rio Grande.) At any rate, he finally found a publisher, at Southern Methodist University Press. At last, we had the book. And I read it again because as we know, a novel of that quality will bear multiple readings. I remember thinking about how wayfaring my friend’s imagination was, to have produced such a vast achievement brimming with vision and knowledge — this diminutive, soft-spoken man, with such a gentle way of turning his wit and intelligence upon the world.
Sometime during that wait for someone to see Tehano for what it is, I visited a workshop Allen was teaching at Alabama, and I got a look at the syllabus; the heading on its first page was “Our time together.” I have been using it ever since. That was not only how he saw teaching; it was how he went about his life. We taught together many times over the years. And in spring of 2010, I took a visiting professor position on his campus at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. For that happy semester, we shared an office. In daily doses, I got to experience his great consideration and fineness of insight, like a kind of spiritual nourishment. We told our jokes back and forth and laughed. He’d make wonderfully irreverent comments in response to the usual pomposities we encountered, “doing the literary,” as we called it. He was so good at assuming the stance and cadence of such passes. And we relished reporting the follies of our respective academic lives — in a time of wildly absurd critical theories, like Roland Barthes’s idea of the writer as an aggregate of social forces, a mindless burp of the zeitgeist — (“The Death of the Author” business). We lamented the political folly of the right, the idiocies of certain politicians. And now and then a sadness came into his voice. You could tell that his apparent equanimity did not come easy. But we never spoke without finding something to laugh about. And because he could so readily laugh at himself, he opened that vein in me as well; I was a better person every time I saw or spoke with him.
He told me once, not that long ago, that at a reading he gave from Tehano at an English Department function in a small college, one of the professors stood to ask him a question: “What made you decide to colonize these characters so by putting them in your novel this way?”
“Did you tell him he should immediately go stuff himself with lemon rinds?” I asked.
He laughed. “No. I was a bit flabbergasted, so I just said, ‘Well, all I can say is that I’ve always believed in the power of the human imagination.’”
I remember thinking that his response was too soft. I remember thinking that I would have another suggestion for the fellow other than stuffing himself with lemon rinds. But Allen’s response was both the right one and the one most indicative of his character.
He was in every possible respect kindly.
This while being vastly brilliant and as richly talented a writer as any other of his time, or any time — a writer of true genius. I have lost him; and the world has lost him too. Rest well, beloved old friend. The books will be safe with us.
Richard Bausch is the author of 11 novels and eight collections of stories.
LARB Staff Recommendations
McCarthy imagined a vast border region where colonial empires clashed, tribes went to war, and bounty hunters roamed....
A Western writer blends elements of cowboy myth with modern brawling....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.