HIS OWNSELF: A SEMI-MEMOIR
By Dan Jenkins
Doubleday, $31, 266 pages
Texans talk funny. A Texan and someone from Wisconsin can say the same thing, but the way the Texan words it makes us smile. For example, a friend who’d worked in Dallas described an easily seized opportunity as “a bird’s nest on the ground,” and he wasn’t even a native Texan.
The late impressionist David Frye, in his LBJ impression, had the president refer to “my two semi-beautiful daughters.” Granted, that’s a bit mean, but most of the funny lines and phrases and terms that Texans use are good-hearted.
The word “semi,” used as a prefix, is much favored by Texans — when the late Larry L. King struck it rich with the Broadway version of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,’ he told people he had become “semi-rich” — but the use had already gone national in 1972 when Sports Illustrated golf and football writer Dan Jenkins used it in the title of his first novel, “Semi-Tough,” a blockbuster that became an equally successful movie starring Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson.
As Mr. Jenkins writes in this self-indulgent romp of a book, “Growing up in Texas, I’d spent a lifetime listening to guys say, ‘I’m semi-tired … He’s a semi-sorry excuse for a football player … I could be two-thirds in love with her if she wasn’t about half [tramp] and semi-dumb.’ ” So when he decided to write a novel, it was only natural that “semi” came to mind.
Like so much in this frequently self-referential book, Mr. Jenkins‘ story of how he found a publisher is enough to make a grown wannabe-writer cry. One night in the spring of 1971 while Mr. Jenkins and his pals were imbibing at P.J. Clarke’s, he ran into fellow Southerner Willie Morris, who asked him what he was working on. “I said I was trying to write a pro football novel, and I was calling it ‘Semi-Tough.’ The fellow with Willie perked up. ‘Semi-Tough?’ he said. ‘I’d buy a novel called “Semi-Tough” if there was nothing in it but blank pages.’ “
The man who said that was Herman Gollob. It was good he was also from Texas, but even better that he was editor in chief of the respected publishing house Atheneum — and buy it he did, based on the partial manuscript Mr. Jenkins delivered to him the very next morning.
Even though he kept his day jobs (SI first and then Golf Digest) for close to 40 years, once Mr. Jenkins had become a “book author” — he kept right on being one. He has written 21 books: 11 novels and 10 books of nonfiction. This output is all the more impressive because Mr. Jenkins was hardly a desk-bound sportswriter. The amount of his travel described in this book is enough to give the reader frequent flyer miles.
The author calls this volume a “semi” memoir, probably because there is so much information about great athletes and great sporting events, but at the same time he tells us quite a bit about his life, and that, too, is fascinating. “One of the best things that ever happened to me,” writes Mr. Jenkins, “was coming from a broken home. It is a particularly good deal if you are an only child and there are loving folks on both sides of the family, which means I was spoiled rotten. A baby Lab couldn’t have had it better.”
He didn’t just have a car in high school in Fort Worth in the mid-to-late 1940s, he had a 1936 Ford roadster with a rumble seat. He also had good clothes and graduation trips (to Europe and to New York City) thanks to doting relatives, but he was a hard worker.
He got the journalism bug early and worked full-time as a reporter while going to college. He got the golf bug even earlier. Fortunately, he was very good, almost good enough to be a pro, and his Texas connections helped enormously in his chosen field. He not only played golf with Ben Hogan, he was his friend.
Mr. Jenkins is an older sportswriter, and many of his references are to star athletes of the distant past, like Sammy Baugh and Doak Walker and Joe Louis. Given that he was born in 1929, it should come as no surprise that he prefers older writers, older movie stars and older music. Politically correct he is not, and loud-and-proudly so.
Above all, Dan Jenkins is funny — even when he is at his most curmudgeonly. How can you stay mad at a guy who can see, and describe, the humor in just about every situation? Like the time he and co-author (and, of course, fellow Texan) Bud Shrake were being interviewed by a very hostile female TV interviewer who disliked their novel, “Limo,” and minced no words in saying so.
After smacking Mr. Jenkins around for most of the interview: “Now she turned to Bud, who hadn’t spoken a word. She said, ‘You don’t talk much, do you? Did you have anything to do with this at all?’ “The twice divorced and brutally hungover Bud Shrake ended the interview. He looked at her painfully and said: ‘I can’t believe I was never married to you.’ “
John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.