GROVER LEWIS was a friend of mine -- which meant, given the hectoring-mentor way he had with friends, that he was often annoyed with me. Perhaps the most annoyed I ever made him was in 1979, when I used the word "gazooney" in a New West magazine piece.
"You can't use 'gazooney,' " he told me with some heat. "That's my word. 'Gazooney' belongs to me."
It was an old carnival term, Grover explained, used to describe an obstreperous customer. He had acquired the word in conversation with a San Francisco Bay Area carny and had used it in a recent article for the same magazine. ("Whatcha gonna do when some crazed gazooney comes at you with a baseball bat?") Hence, he maintained, the word was his property, by right of first acquisition and inventive use -- and no less worthy of protection than a comic's gag, a blues man's lick, a friend's $10 bill.
He was right, I saw, about where I'd gotten "gazooney" -- though I hadn't realized that. Now here was the irate 6-feet-something of thickly bespectacled ex-"Texian," pointing his finger and telling me to stop right there and drop that noun where I'd found it. And I did.
Lewis -- born in San Antonio in 1934; died in Santa Monica in 1995 -- was a man who cared a lot about words. It was mostly words -- in books, stories, odes and songs -- that had saved him from a wretched childhood and a no-win future. It was no surprise to learn that he also was, among other things, a damn good poet.
His affection for language, written and spoken, is evident throughout "Splendor in the Short Grass: The Grover Lewis Reader." This breathtaking, heartbreaking anthology, assembled with respect and love by Texas writers Jan Reid and W.K. "Kip" Stratton, includes 20 pieces (mostly prose, but a few terrifyingly candid poems) by Lewis. It is supplemented with good, informative biographical matter by Dave Hickey, Robert Draper and the editors.
Lewis' love for, and mastery of, language is clear in thumbnail sketches of the celebrated folk he had professional cause to observe: Jack Nicholson, who "walks like Martin Balsam sounds -- solid, chunky, chock full of cod-liver oil"; director Milos Forman, who's "built like a lunch box wrapped in a pair of old San Pedro-style dungarees"; director Sam Peckinpah, who "moves like he's stalking an animal bigger than he is."
It's even more evident in detailed portraits of regular people who caught Lewis' attention. Of a larger-than-life fellow in Archer City, Texas, circa 1971, he wrote: "Everything about him is gigantic, this sixty-odd-year-old cowboy spook ... his immense hands dangling out of the kind of gangrene-colored Western tent-suit you can buy at Leddy Bros. in Fort Worth for around $400, his watermelon-sized skull bulging out of a spotless XXXXX Stetson beaver, even his blinding-white dentures glistening like a wholesaler's display of cue balls out of a massive, rutted face that looks to have been marinated a winter or two in creosote and brine. He's ... a self-cooled, rapid-firing, semi-automatic sagebrush yenta."
The writer knew well such Southwestern types; they were part of his personal heritage, his bloodline. Here, from one autobiographical segment, is Lewis describing his truck-driver father and hotel-waitress mother: "[Big] Grover and Opal were strong, attractive, hardworking people.... Depression kids who'd eloped from the working-class district of Oak Cliff in Dallas, where they'd both been youthful friends of the notorious Southwestern desperadoes Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, who'd died in a police fusillade six months before I was born."
Lewis' folks were not outlaws, but violence found them anyhow, as he revealed in this stunning fragment of memoir: "In the spring of 1943, my parents ... shot each other to death with a pawnshop pistol. For most of a year, Big Grover had stalked my mother, my four-year-old sister, and me across backwater Texas, resisting Opal's decision to divorce him. When she finally did, and when he finally cornered her and pulled the trigger as he'd promised to do, she seized the gun and killed him, too."
Lewis, hobbled by a congenital eye condition that left him with only 17% of normal vision, was 8 when his parents died in San Antonio and he was shunted to abusive Fort Worth relatives. He ran away at 13 and was taken in by gruff but more caring Dallas kin who proved to be the future writer's salvation (along with a local library).