There’s no shortage of engrossing, humane, harrowing reads by alcoholics and addicts. Add Terry Winckler’s “Tule Town: A Memoir of Hellraising Redemption” —likely the only one set in Porterville, California in the 1970s and ‘80s — to the diverse genre.
On his website, the Alameda writer and former editor describes the account: “At age 30, I disappeared into a small farm town in California’s Central Valley to begin a career as a newspaper reporter and to rebuild my foundation as a person.”
His journalistic skills are evident throughout, and the best parts of the self-published book (256 pages, $18 at Amazon, $9 on Kindle, released Aug. 15) vividly detail the people and landscapes he encounters. While Winckler’s journey to salvation and often recurring musings about his status in life are not without interest, his straightforward and pithy storytelling about Porterville’s residents and scenery resonates most.
From the start, as he drives into town after accepting the low-paying job, he offers a fascinating history of the Tule River area, also sharing funny advice from his boss Bob, the editor of the Porterville Recorder, who insists, “It’s pronounced ‘too-lee,’ not ‘tool.’”
Amusingly, his first meal is at Sambo’s, where he meets young, attractive empathetic waitress Jean, and Eric, a budding ventriloquist using salt and pepper shakers as his dummies.
At the Recorder office, the 40ish Barbara, the no-nonsense, aunt-like society editor, introduces him to the staff, uttering what he soon discovers is her trademark “tsk.”
Jim, who turns Terry on to his first “real” news story, about wells running dry and poor people going thirsty, remarkably builds large, intricate models of ships commanded by American Revolutionary John Paul Jones. With his motto, “Believe, and never give up!” based on the sentiments of his war hero, Jim proves an ongoing inspiration to Terry.
Then there’s unorthodox philosopher Chuck and grocer Gordon, who sagely alert Terry to remote waters where Terry, an avid fisherman who finds sanctuary in the endeavor, can capture the biggest catch. Years later, as Terry’s time in Porterville comes to a close, another rugged wilderness mountain fishing expedition marks the meaningful transition.
Also looming large in Terry’s small-town life is Frank R. Brown, an unapologetic alcoholic who came to modest fame as Porterville’s morning show radio announcer in the 1940s after being tossed out of Hollywood. At first Terry tries to keep his distance, but he ultimately can relate to the character, and the two become friends. Terry’s descriptions of Frank’s drunken exploits, including the humorous “Sting”-like con-man attempt by Terry and conspiratorial town authorities to get Frank into rehab; Frank’s improbably successful Memorial Day speech before the public; and Frank’s devastating ending, are highlights of in the book.
Other high points for Terry, and we, as readers, are his news reports that save indigents and invalids from being evicted from the Porterville Hotel, followed by an even more effective editorial; and his powerful yet controversial front-page photo of a weeping woman who has just learned that her 2-year-old daughter drowned.
While publisher Winckler wisely has included numerous photographs in the book that nicely complement the text, they would benefit from captions, except, perhaps one on page 22 that needs no further explanation and perfectly captures the character of the region. As Terry mentions the sacred tradition of the opening of Porterville’s dove hunting season, the Recorder’s Sept. 1, 1983 front page leads with a picture of men pointing rifles upward, at the headline “Korean airliner with 269 aboard shot down by Soviets.”
That, and many other clever observations, make “Tule Town” a treat to read.
Terry Winkler reads from “Tule Town” at 2 p.m. Aug. 20 at Books Inc., 1344 Park St., Alameda; a performance by the author at the nearby café The Local follows. Visit booksinc.net for more information.