If Nevada can be said to have a first family equivalent to the Kennedys of Massachusetts, that family is the Laxalts. This immigrant Basque clan of a century’s residence has given America a U.S. senator (Paul Laxalt, now retired) and a poet laureate, Paul’s late brother Robert, who turned the Basques’ experience of the West into literature.
Robert Laxalt (1923-2001) was born in Alturas, California, the last of six children of Dominique and Therese Laxalt, immigrants who hustled through the Depression by everything from bootlegging to sheep ranching to the operation of the small Basque Hotel in Carson City Nevada. Laxalt grew up there in a Norman Rockwell West, haunting the local pool hall as well as the public library, surrounded by a busy ranching economy and its colorful characters. He herded sheep with his father and uncles, attended the University of Nevada at Reno, and worked as a UPI reporter covering state government in Carson City. Since Carson City is Nevada’s capital, the author was, from an early age, acutely aware of the political and cultural life of his state. Brother Paul used this political awareness and familiarity as a springboard to a national political career that eventually made him a close confidant of President Ronald Reagan. Robert also derived much of his writerly material from it.
Working in both fiction and nonfiction, Laxalt devoted 17 books—notably Sweet Promised Land (1957) and A Man in the Wheatfield (1964)—and numerous articles to the Basque culture in the West and its European antecedent. He had a long tenure as a National Geographic correspondent, crafting pieces about the West, especially the Basque sheepherders of the Great Basin, and he was nominated for two Pulitzer Prizes for the novels A Cup of Tea in Pamplona (1985) and The Basque Hotel (1989). Laxalt’s last book (he died in March) was Travels With My Royal: A Memoir of the Writing Life. The “Royal” was the typewriter Laxalt’s mother had bought for her children to compose the themes they were assigned in school. Laxalt employed this venerable machine to the end, as he traveled the world and churned out his books. The volume, set in large print and running to 216 pages, is a collection of 32 short vignettes with such titles as “Bootlegging Days,” “Sheepherding Days,” “Pool Hall Days,” and “Reporting Days” (a literary tip of the hat to H.L. Mencken’s famous Days trilogy).
There are certainly a great number of days in a 77-year life; the problem is that Laxalt is not much given to detail in recording them. These biographical snapshots are shallow and replete with cardboard characters, even when they happen to be Laxalt’s own flesh and blood. The author seems to be using these bare sketches to show off his terse prose style, as if he were a high-school kid trying to win an essay contest.
Clearly, Laxalt’s understated style owes much to Ernest Hemingway, whom Laxalt mentions a couple of times along the way. The following passage from the sketch entitled “Abodes” (about a trip to France to research and write a book) could almost have been lifted from Hemingway’s posthumously published A Moveable Feast, a memoir of his Parisian apprenticeship days:
It was winter, the villa was cold and bare, and the kitchen facilities were primitive, the only heat was from a lone fireplace. The villa was cynically named “Esker Ona,” meaning “Good Thanks” in Basque. We promptly renamed it “No Thanks” and went looking for another abode. . . . Warming my fingers over the steam rising from my coffee cup proved unsatisfactory, so Joyce improvised a solution. She bought a pair of flannel gloves and cut off the fingers half length. That solved my problem, except for the days when the cold froze my typewriter keys.
All that’s missing from Hemingway (apart from the distinctive prose) is a warm cafe with cheap wine.
This is not to deny Travels With My Royal its charms. There are amusing stories about National Geographic‘s fact-checking regimen, which went so far as sending fact-checkers abroad to do onsite research; the over-a-cliff wreck of a mule train packing into the Grand Canyon, with the wranglers comically striving to save the beer; and (in the vignette “My Two Uncle Petes”), some fine character sketches of several of Laxalt’s more colorful relatives. There are also period of fine writing. Here, Laxalt contemplates the West of his father’s generation through the elder man’s eyes:
And suddenly before me I saw the West rising up at dawn with an awesome vastness of deserts and mighty mountain ranges. I saw a band of sheep wending their way down a lonely mountain ravine of sagebrush and pine, and I smelled their dust and heard their muted bleating and the lovely tinkle of their bells. I saw a man in crude garb with a walking stick following after his dog, and once he paused to mark the way of the land. Then I saw a cragged face that that laud had filled with hope and torn with pain, had changed from young to old and in the end had claimed. And then I did know it.
[Travels With My Royal: A Memoir of the Writing Life, by Robert Laxalt (Reno and Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press) 216 pp., $21.95]
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