Friday, December 30, 2016

Review: PRETTY PAPER by Willie Nelson

I reviewed Pretty Paper: A Christmas Tale (Blue Rider Press) by Willie Nelson for Lone Star Literary Life. Check out the seasonal serendipity from Zen Willie.

Willie Nelson (with David Ritz)
Pretty Paper: A Christmas Tale
Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA)
Hardcover, 978-0-7352-1154-4 (also available as an e-book, an audio book, and on Audible), 304 pgs., $23.00
October 25, 2016

“It was a rough Christmas in a rough town,” December in the early 1960s, and Willie is headed into Leonards department store in downtown Fort Worth to do some holiday gift shopping when he spies a man down on his luck, both legs amputated above the knee, balancing on a rolling board, hawking wrapping paper, ribbons, and bows on the sidewalk. Willie buys his Christmas gifts and goes back outside to look for the man with the pretty paper, but he’s gone.

Willie, intrigued by the quality of the man’s voice when he was singing out about his ribbon for sale — and suspecting he might be a musician — returns to look for him several times. The man on the board is Vernon Clay. He does have a story, one he doesn’t want to tell, but Willie is compelled to discover what brought a man with that voice so low. When Willie sets out to make things right, the situation quickly becomes complicated.

Pretty Paper: A Christmas Tale is “autobiographical fiction” from Willie Nelson (with the help of longtime collaborator David Ritz), based on his hit song of the same title. Pretty Paper seems simple, but as with Willie’s songs, you soon find yourself in the deep end of the pool, tackling big questions like the nature of God, betrayal in business and love, and why bad things happen to good people. Inexplicably drawn to the enigma of Vernon Clay, Willie makes a human connection with a stranger, and does the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.

Pretty Paper is peopled with colorful characters. There’s “Nutsy” Perkins, a local enforcer and bookie with an affinity for white fedoras with purple feathers in the brim, a drummer called Brother Paul (“who understood [Willie’s] personal sense of rhythm. Not everyone does.”) given to wide-brimmed hats and black capes, and Ranger Roy Finkelstein, who owns a record store in Garland (“Garland is where the action is. There’s more to Garland than meets the eye.”) where Willie tracks down clues to Vernon Clay.

Willie’s good-natured, dry wit is here. A British music promoter wearing a monocle and tweeds wants to take Willie to England. Brit: “Let’s proceed to the dining room for tea and crumpets.” Willie: “Or bourbon and barbecue. This is Memphis.” When Willie tries to talk a nightclub owner into letting Vernon Clay sing with his band, the owner responds with, “Seeing some guy in a wheelchair don’t make nobody wanna dance.”

A feel-good, quickly paced holiday tale, Pretty Paper is sometimes too sweet, with a couple clichés too many, but these flaws are infrequent. More often, we are treated to Zen Willie: “cosmic conspiracy” at work and advice to “love the mystery,” extolling writing and music as therapy, release, and exorcism, reminding me in turn of O. Henry and Jimmy Buffett.

It’s a slim, handsomely designed volume; the dust jacket features an iconic drawing of Willie in saturated color, complete with a red bandana anchoring his braids, and a green scarf warming his neck. The interior is similarly thoughtful, with simple charcoal drawings scattered throughout and the edges of the pages changing color by section, striped like a candy cane. This first-person narrative of seasonal serendipity reads as if you’re hanging on the tour bus with the man himself, telling tales. The final touching twist left me smiling, as any good Christmas tale should.

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