This review originally appeared in the Poetry Project Newsletter several years back.
Review of Oklahoma Tough by Ron Padgett (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003), ISBN: 0-8061-3509-4, hardcover, $29.95.
Before he became a member of the New York School, second generation, Ron Padgett was a leader of what John Ashbery once referred to as the “soi-disant Tulsa School.” The Tulsa in which Padgett grew up was Baptist, strait-laced, and dry; selling alcohol was against the law. But many Oklahomans, whatever they might pretend to in public, enjoyed their liquor. Drinking wet and voting dry, it was called. There was money to be made in making runs to Missouri, where liquor was legal, and smuggling it back into Tulsa. As Tulsa’s acknowledged King of the Bootleggers, Padgett’s father made a lot of those runs.
A member of what was dubbed the “Dixie Mafia” (there was no connection with the Italian original), Wayne Padgett was a larger-than-life character: quick with his fists, never one to back down from a threat, and capable of pulling a gun on anyone who tried to welsh on a debt. But there was a Robin Hood side to him as well: courtly, outgoing, and generous to friends in trouble. Oklahoma Tough is Ron Padgett’s memoir of his father.
Padgett has written about his father before: “Bloodwork,” the title essay in a collection of Padgett’s prose, dealt with his father’s death. Padgett’s first extended memoir, however, was Ted, a short book about Ted Berrigan. Ted is a triumph. In 113 vignettes, ranging in length from one sentence to three pages, Padgett presented scenes from his friendship with Berrigan, each one capturing the poet as in a scrapbook photo. Alternately loving and resentful, competitive and guilty, in Ted Padgett came to grips with a complex love. He was able to do that, I think, because down deep he knew that he and Ted were equals.
Oklahoma Tough is different. Does any child really know his or her parents? In the introduction to his book, Padgett speaks of his initial ambition to create “a book that would rise like a granite monument so massive that no one would ever forget him”. But Padgett still has a small child’s awe of his father, a fact that he acknowledges – “. . . I had begun this project as a biographer and ended it as a child. . . .” This awe is a limitation, as it usually is in a child’s memoir of a parent. If Oklahoma Tough is in the end less satisfying than Ted, it is because, to protect himself in the writing of it, Padgett has left himself out of the memoir as much as possible. Yet his story would be the more interesting one.
I mean, think about it. Eisenhower is in office, segregation is the order of the day, the fundamentalists rule the educational system, and here’s little Ronnie Padgett, one generation off the farm, sitting in South Succotash reading modernist literature and starting a literary magazine (while still in high school!) that publishes Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Creeley. He has working-class parents who never went beyond high school. His father’s preferred reading is Field and Stream, when he reads at all. And yet there’s no Tulsa-setting version of Sons and Lovers. Apparently the two-fisted man’s man of a father doesn’t wonder what flying saucer dropped this boy off. He has no problems with his son’s being a poet and does not even worry that Ronnie might be tutti-frutti.
Even Padgett, for all his comparative reticence about himself in Oklahoma Tough, feels compelled to mention the state of affairs: “. . .the oddity of the larger situation dawned on me only years later: at one end of our house was the office of one of the biggest whiskey businesses in town, while at the other was the ‘office’ of an avant-garde literary magazine. Really, though, I was simply imitating my dad: I had my office desk, I operated a cottage industry, and I pursued a project that most people would have considered bizarre.”
I think it’s bizarre. Oklahoma Tough presents a vivid picture of the Oklahoma underworld, at least as much of it as Padgett was able to see as a child, and is fleshed out with the reminiscences of many of Wayne Padgett’s friends and “business associates”. It’s a world both disturbing and oddly familiar: The Andy Griffith Show cut with Thunder Road. But the sense of disconnect between his background and what Padgett became is still too great. The truly fascinating book will come when Padgett gets around to writing his version of One Writer’s Beginnings.