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A new, last novel from late Texas author Bud Shrake is finally here

By Jane Sumner
Special to the American-Statesman

Those of us who gathered to say goodbye on the grassy slope of Republic Hill at the Texas State Cemetery on May 12, 2009, thought we’d heard the last from legendary author Edwin “Bud” Shrake. We were wrong. 

Eleven years later, Shrake, dubbed “the lion of Texas letters,” has come roaring back with a crisp, wild and witty novel inspired by his real-life manic adventures as a screenwriter in 1970s and ‘80s Tinseltown.

A riveting read, "Hollywood Mad Dogs" is the same kind of  “eyewitness fiction” as his superb incendiary novel "Strange Peaches," about the right-wing hate and hysteria in Dallas before and after the Kennedy assassination.

In 1969, Shrake hired on to work with movie icon Steve McQueen on the script for "Tom Horn," about a real frontier scout, lawman and hired gun hanged for a murder he may not have committed in turn-of-the-century Wyoming.

Austin author and playwright Bud Shrake, seen here in 2001, died in 2009.  He worked out of his Westlake Hills home with two other permanent fixtures around the house, his black dog Feeney and feline Merlin. "Hollywood Mad Dogs," a new book from Shrake's archives, was recently released.

As a sportswriter, Shrake was used to dueling egos and deathless quotes from athletes, but the Hollywood he waded into was a surreal swamp of creepy sex, spies, faux houses, crime and silver bullets of cocaine.

Since 1964, Shrake had been a “literary” staff writer for Sports Illustrated in Manhattan cranking out novels on the side. By the end of 1967, Sports Illustrated editor Andre Laguerre told Shrake, no fan of the New York literati, he could live and work wherever he wanted. The Fort Worth native moved to Austin.

Then in 1969 he watched Paul Newman and Robert Redford trade banter in an unconventional Western, "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," the year’s top-grossing film, and said, “Hell, I can do that.”

With a paperback copy of the screenplay by William Goldman, famed for his quote that “Nobody knows anything” in the movie business, as a model, the journalist sat down to write a film script.

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Known as a fast, creative writer during his days at the Fort Worth Press (some while still a student at Texas Christian University), the Dallas Times Herald and Dallas Morning News, he knocked out a screenplay for a Western titled "Dime Box" in a couple of weeks.

When it sold in hours to Fox and quickly went before the camera as "Kid Blue" with Dennis Hopper as the hero outlaw and Shrake in a cameo as “Town Drunk,” he decided writing screenplays was easier, more fun and a lot more money than novels.   

It wasn’t long before he realized his overnight success was not how Hollywood usually did business. And that with "Kid Blue" he had, as he said, “leapt over a pile of (expletive)” and didn’t even know it.

McQueen’s project, in development for eight years, he learned, had already burned through two producers, two directors and five screenwriters, including William Goldman and novelist Tom McGuane, whose script was four hours long.

Edwin "Bud" Shrake, seen here in 2007, had a wall of photographs and mementos of his many adventures and friends in his office.

While his new movie buddy McQueen was a fan of Shrake’s marvelous, metaphysical Western novel "Blessed McGill," he was also demanding, a rebel and maverick with a need for speed, a fetish for blood oaths and a death wish. And though few knew and the star denied it, he was dying of incurable lung cancer.

The McQueen-like character Jack Roach, who behaves “like a wolf that’s lost any fear of humans” and wants a pet cat for a sidekick in his Western, is just one of the players Shrake’s alter ego Richard Swift encounters.

There’s the red-hot producer wearing green flip-flops, white Jockey shorts and two bullet belts across his chest like Pancho Villa, a 14-year-old child star floating en deshabille in the pool and the actress whose movies he’s never seen but who makes his heart fly out of his chest when he meets her. Trouble is, she’s involved with Jack Roach.

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Hired because he was quick and reliable, Shrake soon found himself sequestered in a hotel suite in Burbank with a blocked phone, an ounce bag of cocaine (declined) and orders to produce 15 pages of screenplay every day for a week.

For some 15 years, Shrake wrote or co-wrote at least 42 film scripts and teleplays. Seven, including "Songwriter" (a critic Pauline Kael favorite) with Willie Nelson and the cult horror film "Nightwing," about vampire bats infected with bubonic plague, were produced.

Besides 11 novels, Shrake wrote plays, as-told-to celebrity bios (Willie Nelson, Barry Switzer) and the inspirational golf guide "Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book," the best-selling sports volume in publishing history, with four sequels.

Known, until he sobered up in the ‘80s, as a hard-living party animal, Shrake was also a writer’s writer, an intellectual seeker, who drew from a deep spiritual well. Having survived a near-death experience in late 2001, he believed in guardian angels. And in Steven L. Davis he had one.

Davis is the author of "Texas Literary Outlaws," a captivating account of six gifted writers — Shrake, Gary Cartwright, Larry L. King, Billy Lee Brammer, Dan Jenkins and Pete Gent — who called themselves the Mad Dogs and chronicled their state with unblinkered cold eyes and abundant dark humor.

More important, Davis is series editor and literary curator of the Wittliff Collections, founded by the late Austin screenwriter and photographer Bill Wittliff and his wife, Sally, at Texas State University in San Marcos.

"Hollywood Mad Dogs" by Bud Shrake

Over the years, Shrake had been donating his literary and personal papers, including his raffish correspondence with fellow writers, to the Wittliff’s Southwestern Writers Collection for safekeeping. It would fill 152 boxes.

On Aug. 29, 2008, he handed Davis the manuscript of a novel titled "Malibu Zulu" for his archive. Finished only months before Shrake was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, it was sent to three New York publishers who mistakenly doubted the audience for a Hollywood tell-all from 30 years ago and turned it down.    

That night Davis read the manuscript Shrake had intended to publish under the pen name Richard Swift. Dazzled by its hilarious, lambent prose, he fretted for years that few others would get to enjoy the story and set about locating a publisher. It took 11 years.

Finally, in a surprise departure from its nonfiction military history and outstanding natural world books, Texas A&M University Press agreed to partner with the Wittliff and publish the riotous pseudo-memoir retitled "Hollywood Mad Dogs" (paperback $19; 204 pages).

“I think the book is one of Bud’s best novels,” says Davis, who believes Shrake will go down in history as one of the finest writers to emerge from Texas. “It’s not one of the greatest in the class with 'Strange Peaches' or 'Blessed McGill,' but it ranks up there with his ‘good’ ones.”

Thanks to Davis, Shrake’s sons Ben and Alan, who own the rights, and Texas A&M University Press, "Hollywood Mad Dogs" is now part of the Wittliff Collections Literary Series. So as Davis warns in the paperback’s foreword: “Unbuckle your seat belt and get ready for a wild ride.”