John Williams, later the author of the cult-classic Stoner was born in 1922 in the little Texas town of Clarksville. But his father, who went by “J.E.” had big ideas about getting rich in oil speculation— a gamble that led to his murder.
A few years earlier, in 1918, a gusher had erupted near the edge of the Wichita Falls city limits. Fortune-seekers stampeded the boardinghouses, willing to pay ridiculous rates. If no rooms were available, newcomers slept in shacks, tents, and in cars and trucks, deluging the local schools with bewildered children. Bank deposits increased by four hundred percent. Street corners became outdoor exchanges where buyers and sellers wrangled over real estate, water permits, and deeds to mines. Companies that existed on paper only advertised themselves with come-and-get-it names like Over the Top, Sam’s Clover Leaf, Bit Hit, and O Boy!
J.E. decided that he and his wife and infant son should follow the flood. He found an apartment in Wichita Falls and got a job selling animal feed and agricultural supplies at Miracle Coal & Feed Store.
The work was steady, but J.E. wanted a better life. The Wichita Falls Times carried classified advertisements hinting that a clever man could climb higher, like the one promising, “An opportunity to make some real money. Quick action, too. If you have a few hundred dollars in cash, see Mr. McKinney at the Morgan Bldg.” The nature of the opportunity for “real money” didn’t need explaining. You’d have to be living on the moon not to know it had to do with oil.
But with opportunities for “quick action” also came frauds, double-talk, and the old switcheroo. The get-rich game was not for the credulous. One of the biggest scams in memory had turned the Wichita Fall city fathers into a laughingstock in 1919. A property title researcher named J. D. McMahon offered to answer the demand for office space by building the first skyscraper in Texas at the corner Seventh and La Salle streets. Local investors envisioned a business beehive, a tower of ringing phones and tickertape machines opposite the prestigious St. James Hotel. After eagerly inspecting the blueprints, they raised the equivalent of $2.7 million to build it. But the completed Newby-McMahon Building, though handsomely portioned, was only forty feet high, ten feet wide and eighteen feet deep. The staircase took up a quarter of the interior. Outraged, the investors sued McMahon, only to have the judge rule against them when it was pointed out that the blueprints clearly stated that the wonder of Wichita Falls would be four-hundred-eighty inches high, not feet.
According to a story told in the family, J.E. made his move one day at one of the open-air exchanges downtown where transactions consisted of handshakes, wads of cash, and contracts signed on the spot. He purchased some land located outside the city, intending to turn it around for profit by selling it to another speculator. He found a prospective buyer, showed him the property, and got paid in cash. On the way home, he stopped at a gas station to fill up. It’s said that he mentioned his good luck. If he did, it marked him as a tinhorn who talked too much, like the hapless Swede in Stephen Crane’s “The Blue Hotel” who literally bragged himself to death. A hitchhiker approached and asked for a lift into town; J.E., maybe feeling magnanimous, told him to get in. At some point during the ride, the stranger stuck a gun in his ribs, forced him to pull over, and killed him. A roll of bills that had already changed hands once that day ended up in still another man’s pocket. The murderer continued off into the wilderness on foot.
His son John Williams, had no illusions about the silliness of Western movies about cowboys and Indians. The West, especially the Old West, could be in-the-bone mean. And in Butcher’s Crossing— published in 1959 before novels by Cormac McCarthy’s— he proved just that.
Charles J. Shields’ biography, John Williams: The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel will be available in 2017 from Lebowski Publisher in the Netherlands.