(photo: Greg Pio/Alfred Knopf)
James D. Houston is dead and it came as more of a shock than to hear of the deaths of Jackson, Fawcett, and McMahon combined…. And you’re looking at me like you don’t know who James D. Houston is.
I was flipping through the most recent issue of Poets & Writers and their “Memorium” column caught my eye. It seemed longer than normal, but that may have just been an illusion. Of the 26 or so names, there were three I’d heard of; J.G. Ballard, Phillip Jose Farmer, and Houston.
There are names I think of when I list my writing influences. Names like Hemingway, Cheever, Updike, Carver, Proulx. It wasn’t until I saw Houston listed among the dead that I recalled what an influence he actually was.
Back in the mid-1970s when I was in the Army, I came across a little paperback novel titled “A Native Son of the Golden West.” It was the story of Hooper Dunlap, a surfer, who traveled to Hawaii. It was really a great novel about the westward movement of our country, telling how Hooper’s forbears had travelled a little further with each succeeding generation until Hooper himself ended up going as far west in America as one could.
The story was told in a wonderful manner, with generational flashbacks and cinematic vignettes interspersing the main story. But, honestly, for me, it was the characters who made the story. Hooper Dunlap and his friend reminded me so much of my friend, Vance, that, as I wrote in a letter “I could just shit.” Hooper and friend have an ongoing contest with one another on who can have the rattiest beater truck, the one that could go the farthest with no air-cleaner, or on 5 cylinders, or 3 tires. It was never a blatant competition, nor one spoken about. It was a silent attempt at eliciting awe through the hippest/shabbiest, and a silent expression of that awe. And that was kind of Vance and I—always trying to outdo one another but without making a big show out of it. Even years after we (temporarily) parted company, there was something of that competition in all that I did.
It was that book though, as a whole, that really influenced my future writing. The beautiful characters, the author’s treatment of setting, his intricate weaving of the historical into the tale, it was all amazing and it MADE me want to write, to be a writer.
I lost my copy, I think somewhere in Germany. I may have lent it to someone who left town with it. I’ve searched for another copy for years, though until about a year ago, I could find nothing on it—or the author. Eventually, through the magic of Google, a copy surfaced. I didn’t get it then and I regret it. (It's now $25 to $100 online.) I have to admit a fear of going back and reading it again—what if it’s not as good? Very little of what I considered good literature, cinema, or music has passed the test of time.
Still, can one let go of something that had such an influence? Even if it just sets on my desk as a type of touchstone, I think it will continue to inspire my writing. I just need to find the shabbiest copy there is.
Houston died in April from complications resulting from Lymphoma. He was 75.
A blurb on the book from his website:
A NATIVE SON OF THE GOLDEN WEST
The Dial Press, NewYork, N.Y., 197l. Ballantine Books, New York, N.Y., 1972
The native son is Hooper Dunlap. Born on the coast of California, he has inherited a restlessness that kept the generations of his forebearers leapfrogging west, first across the Atlantic, then across North America. For him the next step is out into the Pacific and to Hawai'i of the l950s before it was a state. There he falls for an island woman, but in this young man's adventure story his deeper love is for the sea itself. Both comic and tragic, it interweaves fearless surfers, oldtime song lyrics,brief prose poems, and ancestral flashbacks. (Out of print)
James D. Houston's Website
NY Times Obit
LA Time Obit