C.W. Smith Has Yet to Write a Bestseller. He’s Fine With That.
His latest, Girl Flees Circus, places the novelist back in New Mexico.
There are agents in Hollywood who specialize in selling books to the movies, and I was sitting in the Beverly Hills office of such a person some years ago, discussing the prospects for a script I had written based on C.W. Smith’s 1983 novel, The Vestal Virgin Room, published by Atheneum. It was a wonderful tragicomic novel by a wonderful, sure to be famous Dallas author, about an endearing husband-and-wife lounge act playing Holiday Inns in Missouri but aiming for Vegas. The agent encouragingly mentioned several bankable actors and directors he was planning to send the script to but then said, “In the next draft, you have to make them less like losers,” the reference to Don and Dottie, the two main characters. Hollywood talking.
Don and Dottie were not losers, at least not to me, and I was pretty sure not to Charlie Smith, who created them. They were clearly talented if not destined for the big time, an ordinary American couple contending with life’s adversities and each other while mired in the shallows of show business. The agent’s failure to see the virtues in their humanity might partially explain why Universal or Warner Bros. never made a movie out of The Vestal Virgin Room, and I wonder what that agent might think of Charlie’s newest book, Girl Flees Circus, being published this month by the University of New Mexico Press. Once again, in this, his 10th novel, he is drawn to the struggles and longings of ordinary people, the denizens of a town in New Mexico so small it doesn’t have a name. The year is 1928, and the anonymous locals become characters in a drama set in motion by a mysterious teenage aviatrix who crash-lands her biplane on a main street, creating a sensation wholly unfamiliar to the outback hamlet. She turns out to have escaped from a flying circus, but who she is exactly and what she’s up to will not be revealed until we are first introduced to the complex relationships and surprising community she discovers while waiting for her aircraft to be repaired.
“I didn’t start out thinking about this, but after I began working on it, I began to realize that for me it’s a story about the West, about the transience of the West,” Charlie says to me one day in the living room of his house off Abrams, in the M Streets, where he has lived for 25 years with his wife, Marcia. He is in the emeritus stage of his career now, and what a career it has been: 13 books and every Texas literary prize and distinction within reach. “Nobody in that town is from there,” he says about the no-name locale in the book. “This is a result of my growing up in Hobbs, where nobody was from there. They all came because of the oil.”
Hobbs, New Mexico, only 12 miles west of the border with Texas, is part of the Permian Basin, and the discovery of oil there is a subplot in Girl Flees Circus. When the first well comes in, the way it’s described, as seen from the air, might surprise anyone who remembers the glory and romance of Giant: “[T]he inky fluid still spurting, the rig surrounded by trucks, tiny men carrying lanterns, and the huge dark stain spreading over the landscape like spilled paint, filling the arroyos, making rivulets and odiferous swamps … a hellish wetlands where no plant of animal could ever live.” READ MORE