The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes
"They say writing the first line of a book is the hardest part. Thank God that's over." So begins the tome written with perhaps the least amount of strain in all of history. It's not a book, even. Reading Willie Nelson's The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes is more like getting intermittent cell-phone calls--while you're on the john, while you're on the train--from an old stoner who is picking up a story he left off three calls ago.
"Hey, remember that guy Zeke I told you about, the one who had the back pain so he fell off the stool at a diner so he could sue them and pay for his operation, but no one saw him fall so he had to keep falling till finally someone did?" you imagine Willie asking.
"Yeah," you say, switching your clothes from the washer to the dryer.
"And you remember I told you he won the suit?"
"Uh-huh, Willie, I do."
"Well, he didn't get the operation with that money. He spent it! And went on painkillers. The doc told him, 'Now Zeke, these pills are very addictive.' Zeke said, 'Doc, I'm 70 years old. I'm addicted to nicotine, alcohol, caffeine. What's one more?'"
That story happened maybe ten years ago, maybe three--it's hard to tell in Willie land. Anyway, Zeke was still going strong at 80, you learn from a later phone call, addicted to painkillers and happy as a lark. "Hey wait a minute," Willie interrupts his own story. "My daughter Lana just came in the room. She wants me to tell you what I think of..."
He doesn't talk about Honeysuckle Rose (his big movie), his problems with the IRS, his parents abandoning him, or the celebrities he knows--all the selling points a normal autobiographer would concentrate on. Because these things are not a normal part of his day on the road or hanging out in Luck, Texas, playing cards until morning with his rascally old friends and getting yelled at by women for it.
That's what he gives us instead: his normal, rascally day. Ray Price's prize rooster, who was brought over for "exercise," kills Willie's hens. Willie kills Ray Price's prize rooster. Ray doesn't speak to Willie. Willie looks at the whole thing stoically: "Ain't a fighting rooster alive that's worth one good laying hen." And then every once in a while he throws in something about Mother Earth and Jesus.
I can't read good writing anymore anyway. Maybe it's just me: I write every day for a living, I've taken classes in it, I've taught classes on it. Non-writers must have felt it too, sometimes: the awareness of craft, of someone arranging words and made-up events to evoke certain feelings from or in you. In Jane Hamilton's The Book of Ruth--the best thing I've read in a long time--the story unfolds perfectly, the characters come alive. But the whole time I was reading, I was thinking about how well the author was writing.
With Willie, I never once had to have my reading pleasure interrupted by that awareness. His writing voice is the same as his musical one: unfancy and unproduced. The editor, it seems, wisely just left Willie alone. In his 1988 autobiography Willie--which was co-written with Edwin and Bud Shrake--Willie flowed and had some follow-through, much more so than in Facts of Life, but he was not nearly as powerful. The sincerity and humor (bad though the latter often is) of a Texan should not be artificially enhanced.
Except when reprinting song lyrics, Facts is no triumph of emotion. Nelson's four marriages failed, he dryly notes, because he just wasn't home concentrating on them. So too his narration often just wanders away, leaving the reader waiting for Willie to come home. And when he does, it's too late and we're sleepy. Most novelists nowadays treat the reader as a new person to seduce: They give more than their all emotionally, and demand a similarly wrenching response. Willie, by contrast, treats his reader like one of his poker companions: He jokes with us, tells us funny little stories that don't go anywhere, and never bullshits us or overburdens our psyche.
And just like a real friend, he has his annoying habits, such as using the word "coinkidinky" or never ever being bitter about anything, even when we really think he should be. (Like the time he sold all the rights to his song "Family Bible" for $50, then watched it go on to make someone else $100,000.)
Willie Nelson's wandering, nonchalant, and unadorned writing represents a way of life long since lost in America. Or maybe it's a fiction that things used to be simpler. Simplicity has always been the hardest thing to achieve. And Willie is a mellow, chuckling master of the art.