The Count of the Sunshine State
Appeared in Creative Loafing, June 7, 2011
Guy de la Valdene is an honest-to-God French count, but his connections to Florida and its literary culture are about as deep as they come. When the dust clears and historians start ranking the Great Florida Writers, we might find that Valdene is a stealth candidate on the list.
Valdene’s new book, The Fragrance of Grass (Lyons Press) is a memoir of this rich and unusual life, told through the prism of hunting. Don’t care about hunting? Neither do I. But this book is so magnificently written that I couldn’t put it down. Reading Valdene is like reading the great literary journalist John McPhee. Pick up the book, consider the subject (in McPhee’s case, let’s say, geology) and you think, “No way in hell am I reading a whole book about rocks.” But then open the book and fall down the rabbit hole.
That’s how it is with Valdene. His writing is so good that every few pages, you need to close the book and just marvel at where he’s taken you with his elegant writing. He’s so good you want to cry.
Valdene isn’t well known, but those who do know his name, associate him with that group of Florida artists sometimes known as “The Sporting Club”: novelist Thomas McGuane (whose first book was called — surprise, surprise — The Sporting Club), poet and novelist Jim Harrison (Legends of the Fall) and painter Russell Chatham, whose paintings adorn the covers of all of Valdene’s books and most of Harrison’s.
These four did a lot of living and playing (mostly playing) in Key West in the 1970s. Valdene’s name showed up here and there — in stories by his friends, on Jimmy Buffett album covers (he took the jacket photos on several of the early ones) — but he was largely the mystery man.
In 1974, Valdene produced and directed the cult documentary Tarpon, a sort of stoned-out film about the artistry of fishing the flats contrasted with the brutality of the commercial fishing boats of drunks departing daily from the Key West docks. Elliptical and mysterious, with a meandering soundtrack a new artist named Jimmy Buffett, the film never found the audience it deserved.
Out of print for three decades, it was re-released two years ago and is a brilliant snapshot of the times. Preserved on film, we have McGuane, Harrison, Richard Brautigan and other literary lights of the time. We see Key West before the bull-goose craziness took over. We see fishing as performed by the masters.
So, though Valdene was clearly a card-carrying member of America’s hippest literary circle, he was slow to publish his first book. Even painter Russell Chatham beat him into print with his memoir of life as a championship fisherman, The Angler’s Coast. (Of course, thinking of Chatham just as a painter is like thinking of John Lennon just as a guitar player.)
Valdene’s first book was an extended essay called Making Woodcock. He wrote another, equally beautiful, book on hunting called For a Handful of Feathers. His novel Red Stag was published nearly a decade ago and is being reissued with the publication of The Fragrance of Grass.
It’s great to have so much Valdene in print.
One of the lingering questions is how does a French count come to be fishing buddies with these great American artists and how does he end up living on a big hunting spread outside Tallahassee?
It all starts, of course, with fish. Valdene was a serious and superb fisherman. He’d been introduced to Tom McGuane by fishing guide Woody Sexton in the late 1960s, when McGuane and his movie-star-beautiful wife, Becky, had rented a place on Summerlin Key. Valdene was on his annual Florida trip, learning the flats from Sexton, serving an apprenticeship under the talented guide. Sexton realized that because of Valdene’s literary interests, he would get along with the young writer.
McGuane was the hub who brought these spokes together around the turn of the Seventies. Valdene (his first name is pronounced like de Maupassant’s) had such a fine income that he could afford to be nearly a full-time sportsman, yet he was also gifted as a writer.
Within the group, there were several levels of connection. Russell Chatham and Jim Harrison visited Key West each year and loved to carouse together. Valdene often joined, but only during the period of his life when he was divorced (when he remarried, it was to his first wife). Harrison was not as serious about fishing as Chatham, and when it came to fishing seriousness, Chatham couldn’t hold a candle to McGuane and Valdene.
“I was kind of the rich sporting friend,” Valdene said. “All I did was fish.”
Valdene first began going to the Keys with his wife and small children. His early days with Chatham, Harrison, and McGuane were G-rated. When he got to know McGuane, he fell in love with Becky McGuane’s homemade chicken-salad sandwiches, which she’d packed in the skiff’s cooler. But for the locale, it wasn’t much different from an Andy-and-Opie fishing expedition, except that Valdene and McGuane were more serious and singleminded than the typical daytripper on the water.
“Guy would pull a skiff for thirty miles, looking for fish,” McGuane marveled. He put himself with Valdene as the most serious sportsman of the group. Harrison would fish, but after a few hours in the motherloving sun, he and Chatham would begin agitating about the bars and the women ashore.
It was a heady time for all involved and that decade in Key West helped McGuane and his brother-in-law, Jimmy Buffett, find their artistic voices. Both of them told magnificent stories of life on the blue-emerald water of the Florida Keys.
For Valdene, his muse was to the found in the field, on the trail of partridge or grouse. Whether in France or in North Florida, Valdene’s storytelling of life in pursuit of game is intoxicating. And yes, if you’re among those who question the whole practice, he does deal with those moral and ethical issues.
Valdene is a fascinating and talented man. Despite a life of privilege and plenty, he is extraordinarily modest about his gifts. “I’ll tell you what I am,” Valdene says, in his unassuming way. “I’m a rich guy that writes a book every ten years to try to justify his existence. McGuane and Jim Harrison are real serious writers.” He also said, “You don’t say you are a writer in the same breath with Tom.”
Valdene might not say it, but we will.