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Reader’s Guide to the Fiction of Clay Reynolds (1949-2022): A Literary Appreciation

Texas author Clay Reynolds was a literary giant who understood deeply what it meant to be a Texan. He was a great scholar of history and literature and also a dedicated teacher. His novels tackled all kinds of social issues of today and yesterday; they were populated with characters who could be lovely, offbeat or even detestable. But he could also find sympathetic and even heroic qualities in the most ordinary of people (such as with the Gil Hooley character in his novel Tentmaker). Reynolds pursued his art both brilliantly and relentlessly — and with humor and compassion. Reynold’s Texas stories reveal the complexity of character and the worlds they inhabited; these stories will be treasured for generations.

By Robert Nagle, Blogger and Editor of Personville Press

(Read the Wikipage article about Clay Reynolds, the author’s official home page and the obituary)

At the end of this page is a list of the best Clay Reynolds books & essays to start off with. Several of Mr. Reynolds books were published as ebooks by Baen Books and are available on all major ebook stores. The official author page for Clay Reynolds contains lots of links to published essays and online articles. Several books (like Sandhill County Lines) are only available in print and can be bought on Amazon and other places. Sandhill County Lines is also an audiobook available on Audible and other places.

Tony Daniel did an 80 minute interview with Reynolds for the Baen Free Radio Hour podcast.

I came to know author Clay Reynolds during his last year of life. No, I never met the man or even talked to him on the phone, but we corresponded often over the last year about literary matters. We shared a few common friends on Facebook, and several years ago, after I noticed that there was no Wikipedia page about him, I offered to set one up for him (as I had done before for several Texas authors). It took more than a year for Mr. Reynolds to respond — at first, he was a bit suspicious, but he opened up a bit after learning that my Personville Press was named after a small town outside Dallas. Reynolds loved to write about small towns in Texas like Quanah, Texas where he grew up.

As it turns out, Mr. Reynolds and I had many connections. Both of us passed through Trinity University (I had gotten my B.A. in 1988 and Reynolds had studied there as an undergraduate and received his master’s in 1974). By some miraculous coincidence, both of us took creative writing classes with playwright Eugene McKinney and were both ardent fans of the fiction of Robert Flynn (who taught fiction writing at Trinity and also used Texas as a backdrop for his fiction). As luck would have it, during the years I was at Trinity, Clay Reynolds had visited several times to give lectures about fiction — although strangely, I never knew about it at the time).

Actually though, my first contact with Clay Reynolds came through book reviews he regularly wrote for the Houston Chronicle. As luck would have it, I later learned that in 1996 my mother, after reading one of Reynolds’ book reviews, had bought and mailed the book to me when I was in Albania teaching with the Peace Corps. (That book happened to be Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States by Bill Bryson and was delightful).

After Mr. Reynolds responded and I realized all the common connections, I suggested that in addition to writing the Wikipedia page article that I would like to interview him separately by email. Reynolds already had a long distinguished career in academia and publishing, and it was semi-scandalous that no Wikipedia page existed about him.

Lone Star Literary Life had already done an in-depth interview with Mr. Reynolds in 2016, but it was clear that many more topics remained to be covered — and besides, Reynolds was the perfect interview subject because he would eagerly answer any question thrown at him. Indeed, purely as a pastime, Reynolds had answered over 1300 questions on the Quora.com website about history, culture, Texas, you name it. My email interview with Reynolds started in mid-January 2021 and ended in January 2022. The interview itself is about 45,000 words and will be released online on one of my websites by Summer, 2022.

6 Interesting/Peculiar Things about Clay Reynolds

He was loquacious about his own literary creations and the creative process itself. Many authors are reluctant to engage so openly in this kind of introspection. Not Reynolds. When Baen republished his titles as ebooks, he wrote 2 new prefaces — (one for Vox Populi, and one for Tentmaker — you can read them by clicking the Sample button on the book page to read it in a browser). Reynolds wrote a similar kind of preface essay for his Sandhill County Lines short story collection. He delivered an address about creativity and biography called “A Cow Can Moo” (PDF) . You get the point.

Reynolds had an encyclopedic knowledge of literature and history. (He actually received his undergraduate degree in history and wrote his doctorate on literary history (American Social Drama in the 1930s). Just for the hell of it, during his retirement he liked to answer random questions about history on Quora.com He answered 1300 questions (with his last answer about the price of horses in the USA just before the advent of the car). He rarely asked questions on quora.com except one –what was the asking price for the street price of raw opium in 1916? (now that he asked it, I am kind of curious about the answer!)

Reynolds had a knack for writing about people with rough edges. Critic John Pitchfork remarked that one of the best features of Reynolds fiction is “the recurrent pattern of tongue-tied and not very bright good old Texas boys courting the mystery of beauty they cannot understand nor resist.” Sandhill County Lines has tough rednecks (“A better class of people”), vulgar frat boys (Mexico), domineering parents (“The Prodigal”). (Don’t worry, it also has lots of kind-hearted people as well). One of my fave stories is “Nickelby” about an adjunct English professor who moves next door to a mean-tempered man who mistreats his dog and how her desire to protect the dog forces a confrontation. Tentmaker is populated with outlaws, prostitutes and all sorts of misfits.

Reynolds was a stickler about historical accuracy in his old Western novels. He spent about 2 years researching the 1992 novel Franklin’s Crossing and did all kinds of field research to learn about dress, weapons, transportation. He visited the archives of a Tennessee hotel to learn what kinds of dinner they served. In the BAEN interview, he said he assumed that everybody ate steak in the 1870s only to find out that almost nobody could eat beef because it couldn’t be preserved (in contrast to fish, pork, fowl, which could be). He had no idea how big wagons were during that time (and how much they could hold) or how to use a saddle with a 19th century tack. This research also shows in his later novel, Tentmaker. (2002)

6 Clay Reynolds works to start off with

Clay Reynolds has written a ton of stuff. I have read only a fraction of them, but I sorta know what most of them are about. There’s enough to keep a bookworm busy for years (if not decades). Here’s some tips about how to get started. You can buy DRM-free ebooks of these titles directly at the baen.com website and print copies and also buy them at the same price on Amazon, Google, Apple, etc. Don’t be fooled by the lack of customer reviews of these books on Amazon. All are interesting and dramatic and beautiful.

1. Of Snakes & sex & Playing in the Rain: Random Thoughts on Harmful Things (Baen 2013) This is a great and funny and poetic collection of personal essays about all sorts of topics ranging from “macho” topics (like trout fishing, golf, baseball, etc) to pop culture (Elvis, first dates, coffee, warning labels) to personal reflections about the legacy of long lost relatives. This is the perfect gift book for the I-Know-How-To-Read-But-I’d-never-be-caught-dead-reading-Proust-or-Faulkner-or-Morrison type of reader.

2. The Vigil (1986) was his widely acclaimed first novel. It’s about a mother who loses her daughter in a Texas town. It received very positive reviews in the national press.

3. Tentmaker (2012) is a historic novel about Gil Hooley, an ordinary fellow who travels to Texas in the late 19th century after his wife leaves him. He is (you guessed it) a tentmaker. After his wagon breaks down in the middle of nowhere, he decides to live in his tent. The novel is about the society which forms around him — including a brothel! — and how this emerging group tries to fend off various outlaws and calamities. The first chapter begins with a shocking and gruesome crime, and the rest of the novel alternates between the perspective of the outlaws and the various people trying to make a living around Hooley’s tent city. This novel was meticulously researched, has a lot of bawdy humor and does a great job of conjuring up what early settlements were like before they turned into actual towns. I love this book; as I said, the first few chapters are pretty gruesome, but it heads off into many unexpected directions.

4. Sandhill County Lines (Stories) 2007 (No Ebook) If you can, try to listen to this audio book instead of reading it. Hearing captures the variety of dialects and speech patterns of various characters. My only “complaint” is that the stories are longer than the typical short story (ranging in the 15,000-25,000 word range). They feel almost like novellas. I love “Dogstar” which is about two state highway patrolmen investigating the death of a homeless man. The story “Bush League” is a great story about the love life of a talent scout for a professional baseball team. The opening story, “A Better Class of People” kind of appalled me when I first read it; it’s about rednecks who beat up some college students who happened to visit a bar one day. But when I heard it aloud on the audiobook, I really appreciated the subtle characterizations and gradual rise in dramatic tension. Also, the spoken dialogue is really masterful — simple, guttural, good at conveying anger and dread. (There’s no ebook edition of this collection, but the book is still in print and relatively cheap.)

5. Ars Poetica: A Postmodern Parable (2003, Baen ebook, print book by Texas Review Press). No, I haven’t read it yet — so what do I know — but it’s an academic satire set in academic times about an aging poet in academia. Serious readers may groan at such books (hasn’t this subject been written to death? ) but I actually like the genre, and frankly Reynolds is precisely the type of author who is erudite and witty enough to pull it off. (Novelist George Garrett liked it a lot, and the novel eventually won a 2002 Texas Review literary prize.) I know 95% of readers may roll their eyes at the idea of reading another campus novel, but for fans of postmodern fiction and John Barth, this is our catnip.

6. Vox Populi: Novel of the Common Man (2013) is another novel I hadn’t read, but I really want to. It’s an experimental novel about a nameless narrator who runs into various people at various places around town. Texas Book Lover Michelle Newby Lancaster wrote a nice review of it (archived version), saying

Clay Reynolds is uncannily skilled at rendering vignettes of strangers forced to occupy the same physical space. He is an astute observer of our smallest gestures and expressions and his dialogue is spot-on, complete with malapropisms that had me laughing aloud. His physical descriptions are detailed to an impressive degree. I could picture these people standing in front of me, to the last vivid detail. At the beginning of Vox, the nameless but not-quite-anonymous narrator seems to be a rather dull blank slate with no personality of his own and at the mercy of the seemingly stronger personalities surrounding him. As the sketches progress, though, our narrator begins to slowly but surely engage more substantively, confidently and empathetically – which is to say, successfully. It is a subtle performance. 

Others? I confess that I have not read a lot of the other novels except maybe the blurbs. If you feel strongly about a novel, feel free to make a case for it in the comment section!

Essays to Read Online

Clay Reynolds has been diligent about publishing his essays, book reviews and academic articles online. (Really his website is full of great stuff). A lot of stuff from the 1980s and 1990s have not been digitized, but there are PDFs of some of his more interesting essays available.

TV Pandemic Log II (2020-2022). (PDF) During COVID, Reynolds watched a lot of movies and TV shows (as did all of us). He kept an idiosyncratic journal of everything he watched, assigning it a score and giving it a capsule review. He watched stuff from almost all the streaming services (and noted which service they’re on– helpful! ) He watched an awful lot of mysteries and historical dramas — and was very critical about series that didn’t quite get the history right.

Reaching the Summit: A Confession and a Valediction (PDF) (published in 2016) is one of Clay Reynolds’ most philosophical (and yes somber) essays. It’s about retirement and confronting the fact that the attainment of his intellectual and literary goals still leaves him unsatisfied.

History of a campaign that failed: The story of Sarah Palin, former Governator of a Really Big state, told by Clay Reynolds. (Satire) (PDF) October 2009. Sarah Palin was an easy target of satire; Reynolds took it to an entirely different plane by writing a monologue diatribe using Sarah Palin’s peculiar form of speaking. It perhaps is longer than it needs to be, but Reynolds had a great ear for speech patterns.

From Castro to Cancun by Clay Reynolds (2014) PDF Reynolds offered an eyewitness account of visiting Cuba at about the time that the Obama Administration loosened rules on travelling to that country. He said he enjoyed seeing the vintage cars on the road and thought the place was relatively free — though he felt certain that Cuba’s unique culture would soon be Americanized.

Happy Reading!


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