Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

5-14 Hillerman

WED, 5-14-08

AT SEA - I've long been a fan of journalist-turned-author Tony Hillerman. His path is one I have contemplated the past 20 years but other priorities, such as travel, have delayed that quest.
Hillerman writes in a style I admire - straightforward and without wasting a word. For several years I have intended to pick up his 2001 "Seldom Disappointed" memoir to gain some insight into his technique. That never worked out either.
But last month, while researching the recent spate of private inquiries into the 1949 murder of Cricket Coogler, I came across a reference to Hillerman talking about it in his memoir.
I remembered his comments in Charlie Cullin's documentary "Silence of Cricket Coogler" that the unbelievably botched murder investigation led not only to a dramatic change in New Mexico politics but to The Mob scrapping its plan to make Santa Fe the gambling capital of the world.
Seeing a five-week South Pacific cruise on my wife's calendar, I decided this would be the perfect time to buy Hillerman's memoir and take it with me.
I've never been much for reading fiction. I'm not entertained by trying to figure out who done it. I do enjoy Kinky Friedman's mysteries. They're so lightweight and comical; they take no effort, in case that's my mood.
But Hillerman, I like, and Mike McGarrity too, because I always learn something about New Mexico and its cultures while I'm enjoying myself. Jeanette gets after me for never truly relaxing, but Hillerman, in this book, confirms that readers such as I form a sizeable chunk of his audience.
I've never met Tony Hillerman. He moved from Santa Fe to Albuquerque in the mid-'60s, about the time we arrived here. But we know his daughter Anne, who has been a Santa Fean as long as we have been. She's a jewel so I'm sure her dad must be a decent fellow too.
Hillerman went from being editor of the Santa Fe New Mexican to a presidential assistant and graduate student at the University of New Mexico. It was a time of great political upheaval. Sen. Joe McCarthy had been looking for communists under every bed and decided that universities were a good place to find them.
Loyalty oaths had become a popular requirement for university professors. UNM President Tom Popejoy addressed an American Legion convention and proclaimed that if they wanted to go after his professors, they'd have to do it over his dead body.
Nobody was going to touch Tom. He was a ranch boy and former UNM football star, who industriously worked his way up through administrative offices to the top spot at UNM. But his stern defense of constitutional rights surprised many. Hillerman, a decorated World War II veteran, was the only newspaper editor in the state to go to Popejoy's defense
Popejoy likely decided he might need some help. Hillerman's dream was to become a novelist. And thus, the needs of two of New Mexico's best coincided to make Hillerman a graduate assistant in the president's office.
Hillerman may have stayed at UNM longer than he intended, but it was a good time to have his level head. Succeeding presidents had to deal with anti-Vietnam demonstrations, a governor's dispatch of National Guard troops to the campus and state legislative investigations.
And then there was the "Love Lust" poem episode. A graduate assistant in English included a sex-filled poem on an elective reading list. A state senator with an eye on Congress blew it into an event bigger than the bombing of Cambodia.
Hillerman's discerning advice helped the university through some tough times while giving him the opportunity sharpen his writing skills and get a good start on a long series of mysteries, mostly set on New Mexico's Navajo Reservation.
It isn't often book reviews are written seven years after publication. But the book still is very much in print. And it also contains much about Hillerman's early years, war years and family.

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