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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,201


This is the grave of Walter Tevis.

Born in 1928 in San Francisco, Tevis grew up middle class but also sickly. He had a heart condition as a child and he basically lived in a Stanford recovery center for quite awhile while his parents moved back to original their home in Kentucky, basically just leaving him there for a couple of years. At the age of 11, he took a cross country rail trip to go to a home he had never seen before, which probably had a big effect on him. In any case, what we do know about Tevis for sure is that he was attracted to some rowdy fun from the time he was a kid. He made friends with a guy who ran a pool hall and he spent most of his time there, which would later dominate his writing when he went in that direction.

Tevis joined the military in 1945, shortly before the end of World War II and was a carpenter’s mate in the Navy. He was discharged shortly after the war ended and then enrolled at the University of Kentucky. He majored in English and graduated in 1949. While he was there, Tevis got to know a writing teacher and local newspaperman named A.B. Guthrie, who was just making a huge name for himself. In 1947, Guthrie published The Big Sky, a series of stories about the Oregon Trail and other frontier things, to great acclaim and a Pulitzer. Guthrie is not much remembered today (incidentally, I am good friends with his stepson and family and have been to Guthrie’s ranch out in Montana and wow it’s a heck of a view, a tiny piece of land but so desirable a location that it borders David Letterman’s gigantic land holdings) but he would get even further acclaim by writing the screenplay for Shane. In any case, Guthrie became a mentor to Tevis and urged the kid to start publishing his writing. Tevis decided to start taking this seriously and finished a master’s degree in English at Kentucky in 1954. Tevis was working in a pool hall during these years, which was perfect because he could take his two great passions–pool and drinking–and combine them with his third great passion–writing. He published his first story, one of his pool stories, in 1952 after Guthrie urging him to submit it.

Tevis did have to make a living though and it’s not as if it was that much easier to make a living as a writer in the 1950s than it is in the 2020s. So he worked for the Kentucky Highway Department and taught a few courses on the side, spending the rest of his free time drinking, playing pool, drinking some more, and writing when he wasn’t too drunk or hung over. To his credit, Tevis published a lot of material in the late 50s. This was the great era of magazines for adults taking submissions from writers and publishing them, even if they weren’t that well known. So he got published in Collier’s, Playboy, Redbook, The Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan, Esquire, and many other places. Interestingly, he didn’t break into The New Yorker and the higher end literary magazines. That wasn’t quite his scene anyway. Even at this point, Tevis was more of a rough and tumble writer for regular people than he was someone intending on impressing people on the Upper East Side.

Tevis was also trying to get a novel published. He succeeded big time with his 1959 debut, The Hustler. This was a huge sensation. No more highway department for Tevis. The 1961 film adaptation by Robert Rossen and starring Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson was just brilliant. Jackie Gleason as Minnesota Fats was perfect casting. The film was hugely popular, critically acclaimed, and made Tevis plenty of green. So that was good for him. Now he could drink and play pool all he wanted without worrying about his cash flow.

Tevis continued to write and also got a pretty distinguished professor post at Ohio University in Athens (THE Ohio University) in 1965, where he taught for the next thirteen years. In 1963, he published The Man Who Fell to Earth, a combination of Cold War parable and reliving the trauma of his childhood that focused on an alien who comes to Earth to take people back to his home planet. In 1976, this got made into a movie too, with the bizarre cast of David Bowie, Rip Torn, and Buck Henry. I’m slightly amazed that Warren Oates didn’t just show up in some random role. His 1980 novel Mockingbird was a way for him to channel his concerns that students no longer read (tell me about it Walter), about a 25th century New York where everyone was illiterate and robots ruled us. His writing really picked up in the early 80s, as all of a sudden a bunch of stuff just flowed out. That included his 1981 short story collection Far From Home, two novels in 1983–The Steps of the Sun and The Queen’s Gambit–and his 1984 sequel to The Hustler, The Color of Money. The Queen’s Gambit was adopted for a Netflix series in 2020; I have not seen it though it seems to have made a big impact and everyone who understands chess (I do not) watched it. Of course I have seen the Martin Scorsese film adaptation of The Color of Money, which I don’t think is one of Marty’s more successful 80s movies. In truth, the period between Raging Bull and Goodfellas is underrated in the Scorsese oeuvre. There are a ton of very interesting 80s Scorsese movies. I would have thought Tom Cruise would have worked as the young pool hustler, but I find him just annoying in this picture and I think Paul Newman did too.

Unfortunately for Tevis, he did not live to see The Color of Money made into a film. His drinking was out of control for a long, long time. He claimed he could not write without drinking. When he made all his cash on The Hustler, he moved his family to a great house in Mexico and then proceeded to stay drunk constantly for the next eight months, at least according to himself. His health was already a mess from his early heart condition and all the phenobarbital he was given to deal with that when he was still a child. He finally managed to control the drinking in the late 70s and became committed to Alcoholics Anonymous. Not surprisingly, that’s probably why his writing sped up so much in his late life. Everyone who says they need alcohol to do this or that thing basically has a problem and moreover, the entire idea of it is counterproductive as we all know. To quote the great songwriter Mike Cooley of Drive-By Truckers in “Women Without Whiskey,” my all-time favorite song, “it don’t make you do the thing, it just lets you.” So he licked that.

But the other problem is that it was the mid-twentieth century. You know what went well with drinking? Or writing? Or literally anything? Smoking. And it was lung cancer that did Tevis in 1984. He was 56 years old.

Walter Tevis is buried in Richmond Cemetery, Richmond, Kentucky.

If you would like this series to visit other people associated with The Hustler, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Evidently Paul Newman was cremated; c’mon Paul you are killing me here. Jackie Gleason is in Doral, Florida and George C. Scott is in Westwood, California. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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