by Max Brantley
Readers here have already noted with sadness the small note in this week's edition that Bob Lancaster has chosen to end his 21-year run as an Arkansas Times columnist. He finished up without final words. I couldn't and wouldn't try to substitute except to reiterate what I said to him. "I'll miss you."
David Koon, an heir to Bob in so many ways (he took up the year-in-review franchise that was once Bob's), did send a note to staff about it and it seems worth repeating here:
If you look in the back of the Arkansas Times this week, you'll notice something missing: the great Bob Lancaster has retired from writing his weekly column, which means he has retired from journalism and a career that stretched all the way back to the reign of Orval Faubus, who once hated Bob wrote so much for something he'd written that Faubus went on statewide TV to slander him. I'd call that a badge of honor.
When I started at the Arkansas Times, I took Bob's old desk, a shaky affair with a chipped top that sat in the corner of the newsroom, backed up against a wall of bookshelves heavy with Arkansas history and lore. I honestly believe that knowing that I was sitting at Bob Lancaster's old desk was the only thing that got me through that first year and a goodly number of the ones between 2002 and now. Sometimes on payday, Bob would blow through the office while picking up his check, and he never failed to stop and chat with me to ask me what I was working on. Every once in awhile, he'd send an e-mail to say that he liked something I'd written, or that I'd made a good point, and I always printed those emails out and stapled them to the wall beside my desk. Why? Because when Mickey Mantle tells you that you had a good game, you print that shit out and staple it to the wall beside your desk.
If I could be any writer in the world — and I'm talking ANY WRITER, even Ernie Pyle or Hemingway or Faulkner or Flannery O'Connor — I would be Bob Lancaster. That is no fooling. I would write like Bob. That ain't the nostalgia talking. I've felt that way since before I started working here. Linked here is the only excerpt I could find of Bob's story "Requiem for Oklahoma City," about the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in 1995. I read it back in college, then I read it again. And what I came away with was this amazement that a writer of such power and grace could come from pretty much the same place I did. I know there are lots of damn fine contenders for the crown, but I consider that story one of the best things — maybe THE best thing — ever printed in the Arkansas Times. Read it and you'll see what I mean.
Bob's writing has this way about it, so simple and so funny, so wise, so smart, so true to the place he grew up without being hayseed, always with this undercurrent of sadness — this sense of "If We're All Going to Hell, We Might as Well Drink!" resignation that I've admired and aspired to and always loved in the works of Twain and Vonnegut and Welty and Harper Lee. Even when he's talking about dog peter gnats and dominoes and backwoods shitkickers, he never quite lets you forget that he's the smartest sumbitch at the checkerboard... that he's got an arm on him, and he's not afraid to use it. Every time I've read something of his over the past ten years, even a throwaway weekly column that most people read once and tossed, I never failed to think: The day you catch up to that, son, you can quit.
Do check that excerpt on the Oklahoma City building bombing. It's one of several pieces we plan to include in a coming retrospective on Lancaster's half-century of work for newspapers. He's also as near as your local library in several books he wrote and a couple of Arkansas histories he edited (and wrote most of) for the Times over a career as writer, editor, columnist, conscience, friend.
Bob's fine, by the way. He's in Sheridan, not far from the House of Dominoes. I hope he'll get inspired now and again to contribute.
And speaking of farewells: I'm hoping weather won't prevent me from getting on a plane in Chicago this afternoon for Hong Kong and in time, another plane to New Zealand. The Arkansas legislature isn't much inclined to follow my advice anyway and I think I probably will appreciate a cessation of aggravation. Back in a few weeks.