Texas author remembers life defined by railroads

Jon Wilcox By Jon Wilcox

Dec. 6, 2017 at 10:03 p.m.
Updated Dec. 7, 2017 at 6 a.m.

 Texas author Clay Reynolds speaks  Wednesday at the University of Houston-Victoria's last American Book Review reading of 2017.

Texas author Clay Reynolds speaks Wednesday at the University of Houston-Victoria's last American Book Review reading of 2017.   Jon Wilcox for The Victoria Advocate

For Texas author Clay Reynolds, the railroad was everything.

"A railroad was a world of its own, and all of the miseries and dangers and glories and pleasures of life lay along its steel rails," said Reynolds, reading from his soon-to-be-published, semi-autobiographical short story "Railroad Man." "From before I was born, we were a railroad family."

At noon Wednesday, the University of Houston-Victoria welcomed Reynolds as their featured guest for the last American Book Review Reading Series event of 2017. More than two dozen people came to hear Reynolds, who is the author of more than 10 published novels, including the Pulitzer Prize nominee "Franklin's Crossing."

"Reynolds' sense of the distinctiveness of place of a fast disappearing, small-town Texas is one of the most enduring images that emerges from his fiction," said Jeffrey Sartain, assistant professor of literature at UHV and managing editor for American Book Review.

With about 80 percent of "Railroad Man" based on his own life, the work falls within the bounds of creative nonfiction, a genre that allows "me to lie all the way through it," said Reynolds, prompting laughter from the audience.

Like much of Reynolds' works, "Railroad Man" features a setting long-lost to history but diligently recreated through vivid description, Sartain said.

"Whistles, bells, screeching, steel on steel, the hiss of air brakes and the rumbling clatter of cars jumbling and shouldering their bulk up and down the track behind a smoking leviathan was a celebration of sorts - a festival of noise and excitement," said Reynolds, reading from "Railroad Man."

And amid that beautiful imagery, Reynolds plots deeply complex and beautifully realistic family relationships.

The father featured in "Railroad Man," Reynolds said, is taken largely from his own.

"He frequently suffered from sprained ankles and torn ligaments, but he just laced the boots tighter and toughed it out," said Reynolds, reading from his short story. "Toughing it out was in many ways his attitude toward everything. He didn't believe in excuses."

Despite his sometimes extravagant descriptions, Reynolds also demonstrated an aptitude in describing the sometimes painful reality of human relationships.

For Jim Frank, a Crossroads retiree turned author, the chance to pick Reynolds' brain was a opportunity to hone his craft. After speaking with Reynolds, Frank said he was even more determined to pursue a creative writing class at Victoria College.

For Frank, who said he grew up in similar circumstances as Reynolds and the central character of "Railroad Man," hearing the work was simultaneously familiar and enchanting.

"These experiences were common to the time but unique to the present day," Frank said.

And blending fact with fiction to trace the past to present is a central theme in "Railroad Man."

"The details of it are drawn directly from my experience," Reynolds said. "I could go through and show you those things that were invented and those things that are not, but that sort of spoils the effect ... Memory is a tricky thing."


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