Book Review: The Party House: Texas Gulf Coast Schemes and Dreams, by L.Wade Powers

I was hooked (as in “hook, line, and sinker”) by the end of the first page: “There were memorable characters in the inside world in those days and some of them need to be protected, I suppose. Some of them don’t deserve to be, but my lawyer said to go easy and change the names. She also said to be free and loose about the facts and not too heavy on history or memoirs, at least not to the extent that people would recognize themselves and file papers. We don’t want that, do we? So, if you happen to be reading this, which I doubt, and recognize yourself or someone you think you know, well that’s just too damned bad. Oh, I mean, it’s probably just a coincidence and it ain’t you at all.”

It’s the early 1970s, and Peter Gilbert has come to Port Tarpon on Mustang Island (where there are no mustangs), to conduct field research on the behavior of fiddler crabs for his doctoral dissertation. Against the advice of his academic colleagues, he gets inducted into the gang of misfits who frequent The Party House, a tavern with an indelicate reputation. Before long, he is tending bar part-time for extra cash, seduced by the lure of the hard-drinking and hard-loving locals. What follows is a droll, sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking exploration of the quirkiest characters and relationships in recent literary memory.

Powers is a master of his craft. His characters are fully alive and draw on our sympathy, even when they do the most outrageous things. Their adventures become the stuff of personal legend—stories I’m sure the narrator will tell to his friends over and over again decades later. I still find myself laughing when I recall “The Great Barroom Bicycle Race” or the launch of “The Good Ship George Dewey.” And who couldn’t cheer for a south Texas softball team that calls themselves “The Armadildos?”

There is sorrow here as well—relationships that misfire, love that grows cold, the intrusion of “reality” into the hijinks and carousing. Ultimately, time wins every battle. The capriciousness of youth gives way to the sobriety of age, and something vital is lost along the way. And there’s no going back.

My only criticisms are petty ones: I wish the Kindle version had a table of contents so I could more easily navigate to favorite chapters and re-read them. I also wish the author had kept the whole novel in the first person, told by Pete. A couple chapters are in the third person and they caught me off guard.

That said, I give this book my highest recommendation. It’s a funny, poignant, bittersweet masterpiece, and it will haunt me for a long time to come. Kudos, Mr. Powers!

Here’s the link: The Party House

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