The sub-title of Bill Whaley’s new book, Gringo Lessons, published by Nighthawk Press, is Twenty Years of Terror in Taos.
For those who came here when Bill did, during the mid – 1960’s, this was still Outlaw Territory, despite the influx of artists and writers who began arriving decades before. As Whaley weaves his Taos tales into the greater story-line that is his life, one holds one’s breath from chapter to chapter, praying that our protagonist gets out of whatever he’s fallen into, alive.
Gringo Lessons is a funny, poignant and self-deprecating look back at a young man’s journey through the labyrinth of this tri-cultural village as it was then; before tourists began arriving in droves to spend their greenbacks on tat made in China, sold in the shops that line the Plaza. The historical, public square which was once the center of this town (and Whaley’s universe).
Landing in Taos Ski Valley after having dropped out of college in Colorado, this young Nevada transplant found himself in a community of mavericks eager to teach him a thing or two about “aqui en Taos.”
The inscription inside the copy of the book Bill gave me, reads “To Lynne, the last cat living – love, Bill.”
After reading this book, you’ll be convinced that this cat has had at least nine lives, and then some!
As he recounts his first two decades here, and his attempt to navigate the murky waters of doing business in a lawless landscape with no visible boundaries, geographically or otherwise, the reader is taken along on an adventure that plays out in the bars and cantinas that brought out the denizens of the Taos night.
Whaley’s transformation from ski bum/bar tender to entrepreneur – he once owned and successfully ran the Plaza Theater before alcohol and the insanity of the zeitgeist got in the way, is an all – American story of success and failure and dreams realized and dashed. A Tragicomedy of the first order.
Dylan’s lyric “there’s no success like failure and failure’s no success at all,” comes to mind.
As things go from bad to worse and the story unravels like a love affair gone horribly wrong, our narrator finally hits bottom.
I hate to give too much away, but in the end, Whaley survives the brutal ride and returns to Nevada for a decade long, academic discursion that honed the writing skills we are gifted with in this book.
Peppered with Taos characters past and present, famous, infamous and complete unknowns, (Whaley’s Dennis Hopper recollections are hilarious) Gringo Lessons is a must read for all who wish to know what it was like “aqui en Taos” before the big wide world discovered, encroached upon and forever changed the town some of us once knew.
After Whaley came back to Taos in the early 90’s, he published two newspapers; the short-lived Geronimo (with writer Tom Collins) and Horse Fly, which for a decade, until he sold it, was the only source of real news in this valley.
Nora Anthony (who just happens to be the mother of the fabulous photographer Zoe Zimmerman) graced the Horse Fly with her clever illustrations and has contributed her artistic wit to Gringo Lessons as well.
At the end of his Taos chronicle, Whaley alludes to a sequel. In the meantime, if like me, after reading this book you are hungry for more of his wry humour, you can follow him daily on his on-line newspaper, Taos Friction, which is in Taos Links on the blog’s sidebar.
Gringo Lessons is available now at the Brodsky Bookshop, the Blumenshein Museum and Hacienda de Martinez in Taos and at Collected Works in Santa Fe.
You can also order it online at Amazon.com by visiting this link, Gringo Lessons
Photograph of Bill Whaley by Kent Barker
Caveat: I wrote for Horse Fly from time to time and have enormous respect for Whaley’s skills as an editor. I also had the great pleasure of working with Bill again on the pieces I contributed to Taos Portraits.