For the month of June, 2000, I introduced another old friend, one of Kansas's most distinguished authors (and my office mate for thirteen years), Thomas Fox Averill. I returned to consider him again in August of 2001, when he published the novel, Secrets of the Tsil Cafe. From March-June, 2003, I again featured Tom, after the Japanese translation of that novel was published, demonstrating that a Kansas writer can indeed reach out as far as Japan.
THOMAS FOX AVERILL
Now Tom has published a new novel, The Slow Air of Ewan MacPherson, "a full-bodied novel of love, family, friendship, self-discovery--and single malt Scotch."
Bob Woodley was my office mate at Washburn University from 1963 until his death in 1976. Tom Averill was my office mate, in the same office, from 1980 until I retired in 1994, so for about the same number of years. And, in one important respect, they did the same thing--taught creative writing--were the creative writing program at Washburn. But the program has burgeoned under Tom, who is a charismatic teacher, until, these last ten years, it has required an additional teacher.
And, beyond this, Tom's teaching specialty is Kansas Literature. In fact, if anyone's name suggests "Kansas Literature" to almost everyone who hears it in the state of Kansas it is Tom Averill's. I think it is fair to say that Tom does know more about Kansas writers, living and dead, than anyone else, living or dead, ever has. And he has absolutely educated himself in the field, by getting out and about and working with living Kansas writers--like Robert Day, Steve Hind, Harley Elliott, and Bruce Cutler--and with others who've made a specialty of Kansas History, including earlier Kansas writers--like C. Robert Haywood, Robert Richmond, and Gene DeGruson. Then he taught courses, across the state, focusing on local writers in their local libraries (in connection with which he did a map of Kansas Literature), then in the classroom at Washburn, and then (the definitive version, I would say) on television, when he did the television series on Channel 11 that may be the best TV course they have done. That course has been offered many times, and has always drawn a strong enrollment. I have most of the half-hour segments on tape, but would still tend to watch the rest of the show whenever I happened to turn it on, since I often knew the people he was talking about or interviewing--and since he is a particularly good interviewer. They are interesting and informative programs, which I recommend to anyone interested in Kansas Literature.
So I knew Tom well as an office mate and teacher. But then I have also worked with him, over the years, on the Woodley Press. We had started the press just before Tom came to Washburn, but then published his first collection of short stories, Passes at the Moon, in 1985, as our seventh book, and re-printed it in 1990. But it has long since been out of print--so, much as I would like to, I can't promote the sale of that book. But Tom also had three stories in Kansas Stories, 1989, edited by James Girard (which is still in print); he was on the board for years; he edited Harley Elliott's The Monkey of Mulberry Pass for the press in 1991; and then he was the president of the Woodley Foundation for 1997-98--so has strong connections with the press. At the same time, Tom was instrumental in developing the Center for Kansas Studies at Washburn, and has edited five books under that aegis (The Kansas Poems, Kenneth Wiggins Porter; Dust and Short Works, Marcet and Emanuel Haldeman-Julius; As Grass, EdytheSquier Draper; In a Place With No Map, Steven Hind; and A West Wind Rises, Bruce Cutler--all still in print) the last two in conjunction with the Woodley Press. Tom has done a lot of editing, notably What Kansas Means to Me (University of Kansas Press, 1991), seventeen essays by well-known Kansans (including William Allen White, Karl Menninger, and Milton S. Eisenhower, as well as William Stafford and Denise Low). That book, too, is still in print, and there are many things in it I might use as a sales enticement, but they are by other people. Tom's second collection of short stories, Seeing Mona Naked (Watermark Press: Wichita, 1989) is still in print as well, and I am tempted to offer a story from that, or one of the many stories that he has published in periodicals since then (say one that won one of the O. Henry awards) for Tom certainly deserves his reputation as one of the finest writers of short fiction in the state.
But I have decided to feature the work that has already been Tom's most
successful, William Jennings Bryan Oleander's Guide to Kansas (Wichita
Eagle and Beacon Publishing Co., 1996), for it brings Tom's connection
with Kansas most strongly into focus, I believe. Tom developed the
character of William Jennings Bryan Oleander primarily as a radio persona
on KANU, Public Radio, University of Kansas in the early '90s, first once
a month, then twice a month, then every week during the 1995-6 legislative
sessions (after Oleander was elected to the legislature from Here, Kansas).
Oleander's comments were also printed in the Topeka Metro News,
were put on tape, and Tom came to make more and more personal appearances
before groups of all kinds in the state as William Jennings Bryan Oleander,
which he does very well. So now there is the book, there is the tape,
and, if you need a program you couldn't do better than to have Tom come
to tell you about some aspect of Kansas from the point of view of this
character he invented, and then perhaps talk about the character as a fictional
creation afterward. He wrote a prizewinning play on the character
which was produced at KU three years ago. And I don't know of any
better way to get you into Tom's take on Kansas than the opening essay
from that book.
Here, Kansans Live in Small Towns
Folks, I'm William Jennings
Bryan Oleander. The William Jennings Bryan is for the great "Boy
Orator of the Platte," the great "Popocrat (half Populist/half Democrat),
the People's Hope at the turn of the century in the presidential election
of 1896, when it looked for a hopeful moment that the common people might
grab control from the moneyed, self-interested corporations. I'm
proud of my name.
So what if William Jennings Bryan lost in 1896? And again in 1900? And in 1980? So what if Bryan went from great political orator, to Chautauqua lecturer, to honorary prosecutor of that evolution-teaching John T. Scopes in the great Scopes Monkey Trial? So what that Bryan was mercilessly upstaged by Clarence Darrow? So what, in short, if Bryan was best known for his repeated failure to become president and his failure to return a Creator/God to the schools before his death in 1925, five days after the Monkey trial? I'm still named after a famous man: just ask my daddy, Abraham Lincoln Oleander.
Not a one of us Oleanders knows where the Oleander comes from. We know the oleander is a plant; we know it grows well in Kansas; we know it's poisonous in all its parts: berry, leaf, stem, branch and root. Has that shaped me and my kin? Well, we speak our minds; we let folks chew into us and spit us back out; we grow where we're set without fear of enemies; we're not nourishing but we have our beauty, our elegance, our place in the world, and in Kansas.
And since the early days of the state, that place has been Here, Kansas. Now don't go hustling to find your latest Kansas Department of Transportation map of the Sunflower State: You won't find Here, Kansas.
Who would want to get here? A failed bank and a closed-down post office share the same old limestone building. To get a money order, you drive over to Near Here (don't look for it on the map, either) and see Harvey O'Connell at the Near Here Tavern and Mini-skirt Museum (don't get too excited--it's just one mini-skirt that young Harv scavenged from that bus wreck in 1972).
Everything else we need is in Here. Young Claude Hopkins down at the Mini-Mart will cash a Social Security check. Co-op has a screen door and a flyswatter in the summer, a woodstove and a checkerboard in the winter. Elmer Peterson's Drive-Thru Pharmacy and Car Wash keeps us clean and medicated. You see, most of us in Here are what you'd call over the hill, only there aren't any hills out here to be over. Why, it's so flat you can stand on tiptoe and see grain elevators in five surrounding counties.
Our tallest citizen is Barney Barnhill. We call him the "Weatherman" because he's so tall he sees storms rolling in five or ten minutes before the rest of us. Barney runs Here's great tourist attraction, the Demolition Derby Museum, open from 3:45 to 5:00 the first and fourth Friday of most months, and 8:00 until closing every other Saturday except in months beginning with "J" and "A." Come see us. Barney will talk your ear off about the history of those Kansas Demolition Derby Curcuit cars.
Folks, for the last several years, since I turned ninety, I've been the honorary Mayor of Here. We used to elect someone, until election expenses became our entire budget. Plus the drawback of working with Hattie and Tommy Burns. They're the cultural sector of Here, Kansas. She's a hairdresser. He repaired speedboats until Here Lake dried up. Together they run the Here College of Beauty and Fiberglass Maintenance. They're Here boosters. Once a year they put an ad for Here and the College in the Wichita paper, then sit back waiting for a rush of discontented city folks. When nobody shows up, they get mad and try to charge the ad to the city. It's my job to say, "Nope, Here won't pay."
You see, Here, Kansas, was founded when a bunch of our ancestors strayed from the Santa Fe Trail. They didn't know where they were going. They were as whiney as a bunch of kids. "Are we here yet?" they kept asking the wagonmaster. Finally, he sneaked away one night. They weren't smart enough to know they'd been abandoned. They thought they'd arrived. They called the place Here, and we've been here ever since.
In the early days, we boosted the town, took ads in the Eastern papers, brought in reporters from Topeka, lied ourselves red-faced for nothing. Every one of us traces our heritage to that original wagon train. If you can't find us on the map, that's okay; we've been lost most of our history. And being lost means we haven't often been found. Think about that advantage: We haven't found crime, nor welfare, nor teenage pregnancy (try to find a teenager in Here!), nor local car dealer commercials, nor Kiwanis clubs, nor salad bars, nor a sign on the highway that reads "Welcome to Here, Kansas, Population 38."
But being lost also means we've remained true Kansans: unadorned, unalloyed Kansans. Here is the unvarnished truth about Kansas, without the propaganda of state government, economic development, or the Kansas Department of Commerce, Travel and Tourism.
Let me give you an example: You know how state officials are always talking about something they call the Brain Drain? Of course the politicians want you to think Kansas has Brain Drain because our kids leave the state after a stint in one of our Margin of Average colleges. But in Here, we see the Brain Drain from the local view. For lots of us, Brain Drain is a personal problem. And we don't get it from leaving the state. Hell, we get it from staying. And Here is the only Kansas community doing something about it.
You see, back toward the end of W.W. Two, J.W. Small needed help. J.W. and his wife, Minnie Small, were set to adopt a war baby, clear from France. Folks in Here had never seen an honest-to-God French person--Frogs they called them back then--let alone a tadpole. The whole town was ready to welcome that baby when J.W. panicked. Held a town meeting. Invited a professor from a junior college two counties over. J.W. told us what was wrong. The professor laughed, told J.W. he didn't have to learn French, the baby'd start right out talking English.
"How can it be?" asked J.W. "The baby's French. Says so on the papers." J.W. only wrote a thank-you to that egghead professor after the baby started right out speaking American. First words: "No" and "wee, wee" (he was a little pisser).
So, in 1944, J.W. founded the first group in Kansas to recognize Brain Drain. He called it DENSA, a support group for thick skulls, slow thinkers, numbskulls; for the dull-witted, dizzy, and dense. To join, you just confess you've got a drained brain, then try to remember when the meetings are. Our mascot is the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz: his head may be stuffed with straw, but at least he has something up there.
Now, DENSA likes to keep busy. I'll give you a for instance. Pierre Small, who has grown up to be our lifetime president, became very worried when one of our citizens, Fred Pete, died recently, leaving behind a blind dog, whose name is Revor--that's Rover spelled backwards.
Pierre went around with a sign-up sheet, asking everyone in Here to take a turn as a seeing-eye person for that blind dog. He wanted folks to make sure the dog didn't get run over crossing the street. Folks willing to spot a cat or two. Or a fresh load of garbage. "A dog," Pierre told me, "oughta be able to be a dog, even if it is blind."
"That's right," I said, and signed up for an hour.
"Make sure you do dog things," he said.
"Don't worry," I said, "I know where every fire hydrant in Here is, and if we run out, I'll take him to Near Here."
But Pierre didn't stop there. Why, one afternoon Pierre was almost run over by a lost truck. His eyes were squeezed shut. "Watch where you're going!" I shouted at him.
"Is that you, William?" he asked.
"Open your eyes."
"I can't," he said. "This is part of my sensitivity training. If I'm going to be a seeing-eye person for Revor, I've got to feel how hard it is to be blind."
"Where's that darn dog now?" I asked.
"I don't know," Pierre admitted. "I lost him."
"And you're looking for him with your eyes closed?"
"See what I mean, William," said Pierre, finally opening his eyes. "Do you see how hard it is to be blind?"
Lord, folks, when I saw Pierre next, he'd finally found the dog. He was practically dragging Revor down the street.
"Frustrated?" I asked him.
"Darn and mon dieu,: he said. "I swear this dog is so blind it doesn't know where it wants to go."
Folks, you could say the same about DENSA, and maybe about Here. But that's only if you're an outsider. We insiders aren't afraid to be who we are: Kansans; Here, Kansans; lifetime DENSA members.
* * * * *
Tom has been very much in demand as William Jennings Bryan Oleander,
is also an excellent reader of his own stories if you are looking for a
literary program, and has a number of books for sale in addition to:
William Jennings Bryan Oleander's Guide to Kansas, Wichita Eagle and Beacon Publishing Co., 1996
Seeing Mona Naked, Watermark Press, 1989
What Kansas Means to Me, essays by well-known 20th century Kansans, University of Kansas Press, 1991
Secrets of the Tsil Cafe, Bluehen Books, 2001
Most of these may be purchased directly from the author, at email@example.com (or see his own web site for more information, at):