Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Jack Matthews (1925-2013)

Jack Matthews has been gone for almost a year now and the world is a diminished place. This past weekend, I went to the book sale at the Athens County Public Library, a place he frequented, and found one of his books, The Charisma Campaigns from 1972. I read the book straight through last night. I must say what a pleasure it is to read the work of Jack Matthews. On every page, you will find a gem of a sentence, scene, insight, or line of dialogue or description. The Charisma Campaigns is one of the funniest books I have ever read, but you would be wrong to think that because it's funny, it's also a bit of fluff. The book reminds me a little of Portnoy's Complaint, another very funny book that turns out to be serious in its intent. It comes as no surprise to me that Walker Percy nominated The Charisma Campaigns for a National Book Award. Like Jack Matthews, Walker Percy was a writer who was at once funny and serious. The Charisma Campaigns reminds me of a Percy novel (or one by Saul Bellow) in which a man in his middle years finds himself in crisis. There is even a bit of one of Percy's favorite topics, semiotics, in Mr. Matthews' book. Oddly enough--and of interest to the Appalachian Ohio reader--there is also mention of Ambrose Bierce (a native of Meigs County) and the collapse of the Silver Bridge. Odder still, for me, there is a kind of coincidence in reading about the protagonist's eccentric brother, who keeps his collection in a number of railroad cars on his property, and of the death last week of former U.S. Representative Phillip Crane, whose father, George Crane, moved a railroad car onto his family farm in Hillsboro, Indiana, where it remains.

The photograph above is from before Jack Matthews' fiftieth birthday and shows him smoking a cigar--perhaps a Dutch Masters panatella--and sporting a string tie like his Charisma Campaigns protagonist, Regius "Rex" McCoy. The events in the book come to an end in October, a month just passed and one of nostalgia and bittersweetness. Jack Matthews died in November 2013, nearly a year ago as I write this. He inscribed the copy of his book that I found this weekend in December 1975, almost forty years ago now. As Mattie Ross in True Grit says, "Time just gets away from us." You might say also that it does away with us, but Jack Matthews will go on living in the memories of the people who knew him (or like me, knew of him), and when we are all gone, in his books, which are so full of life and living.

Original text copyright 2014 Terence E. Hanley
Photograph by Max Schaible
Jacket design by Lawrence Ratzkin