My very first impression of this book wasn’t too favorable: Novalyne Price starts off in a school-girlishly gushy manner (for example, she uses way more exclamation marks – seriously, and not humorously – than I can stomach without sarcastic remarks and irritated eye-rolls – “I met Bob Howard today! I’m so excited! Bob Howard is a real writer, and I met him, today!”), which made me wonder whether this was going to be 300 pages of fan-girling (which would have surprised me, knowing the friend who gifted me the book), but then the actual book started, Price cut down a bit on her exclamation mark usage, and even though I could never come to fully appreciate her style, the content more than made up for any possible stylistic deficiency or incompatibility, and soon I started to find this book thoroughly enjoyable, exhilarating, admirable, delightfully unruly and also heart-breaking.
And as I came to realize that there’s no way for me to write a coherent review, I decided to write one based on my random thoughts and feelings, separated by headings.
I’d recommend skipping the sensationalist, trashy blurb altogether, because based on that, you might just think that this is a – well, a sensationalist and trashy memoir/biography, when in fact it’s anything but.
What is this made of?
The book mostly consists of the text of Price’s journals and diaries, from that roughly two-year period when she knew and dated Howard. I don’t know how heavily Price edited or revised her text, and how much she deleted from it when – more than 40 years later – she took her journals and turned them into this book, but in any case, the book still retains a lot of journal-like characteristics, which in itself is neither good nor bad. Price’s book is as intimate and vivid as any journal that is faithfully maintained by its author, but it’s also full of tiresome repetitions, flights of fancy and a certain monomania – it’s full of details which are probably very interesting for the author of the journal, but perhaps not so interesting for anyone else.
In 1934, Novalyne Price gets a job as a teacher in Cross Plains, a small Texas town, where she soon manages to pick up Robert Howard. Price and Howard already knew each other briefly from earlier, and I’m not even sure what I mean here by “picking up”, because even though they go on to spend a lot of time together in the next several months, and even though Price sometimes thinks about Howard as a possible romantic interest, they just remains friends throughout their relationship – friends who spend their time driving up and down through the Texas countryside, reading books together, discussing writing, literature and the downfall of civilization, and also arguing a lot.
And even though in the beginning I briefly thought that perhaps Price is just a fan-girl, hanging on the words of Howard-the-Barbarian with fascination, I soon realized that she’s in fact a smart, determined, hard-willed, ambitious and self-confident young woman with a quirky sense of humor, who doesn’t give a damn about many of her environment’s conventions and expectations, while at the same time she’s an often clumsy, irritating, not-very-imaginative country girl who sometimes displays a frightful lack of empathy. In short – I realized that Novalyne Prize is a real human, a person with random moods, with good and bad moments and traits, with prejudices, biases, deeply held beliefs, with a lot of enthusiasm and lust for life, with all kinds of joys and sorrows. And though it’s possible to dislike her as a person, the real-ness of her own personal reality is indisputable.
What’s this about?
Theoretically, it’s about the last two years of Robert E. Howard, as witnessed by a close friend, but in reality, it’s much more about the friend herself. Yes, Novalyne Price wasn’t afraid to look closer and go closer to Howard, whom almost the whole town considered a lunatic, so it’s probable that she really got to know Howard better than anyone else. Still – Price’s main concern and interest was always her own life: she soon gave up the idea of getting into a closer, romantic relationship with Howard, she dated other men, too (and some of her journal entries concerning one of her regular dates, Truett, who was also Howard’s friend, really bring to mind the world of teenage-girl diaries), and she often got fully engrossed in her job and ignored everything else – therefore I sometimes felt that, after all, she probably didn’t see/understand Howard as well as she claims.
And about what else?
About so much more. The book contains the whole life of a small Texas town in the 1930s, and it’s is alive and vibrant with the whole era, environment and background – it’s just there, without any long descriptions, which is amazing; it’s also full of discussions about writing, literature and literary aspirations (and I’ll probably never again look down upon pulp writers paid by the word count, and definitely not on Howard); and (whenever Novalyne Price manages to put her ego aside) it’s also full of beautiful and sensitive descriptions about the things you cannot change, about all that’s fucking tragic in life, about the sense of living at the wrong time in the wrong place.
All in all, it’s a fascinating and nerve-racking book. (If Novalyne Price’s style didn’t get so much on my nerves as it did, it would be simply fascinating.)