A Search for the Elusive Goblin Fish.
A Memory of William (Tiny) Boyles and Jimmy Dale Noble.
by Hank Nuwer.
In 1978, a book publisher wanted the services of a writer without good sense to trail William (Tiny) Boyles, a 389-pounder who made his living as a skip tracer. Hired by bondsmen to bring back bail jumpers, Tiny had muscles, but he wasn’t talented in the hundred-yard dash. So he hired people with foot-racing skills like high school dropout Jimmy Dale Noble, a sometimes logger, deputy sheriff, guitar picker and songwriter in low-rent bands.
I, a self-taught writer, went with Tiny on his rounds to get a feel for his job and co-wrote four adventure novels with him. Eventually I figured out that some of the bad guys he claimed to have brought to justice were in fact creations and not real people.
“The Bounty Hunter” series was about four friends who brought villains back to a bondsman for a percentage of the bond. The characters were larger-than-life Tiny Ryder; Hammer, a block of granite who uttered only one sentence in every book as a character device; Jerry Jeffers, a rowdy backup singer, and Foster Foster, a bumbling journalist along to get freelance stories, who led the other three into life-threatening situations.
The ride lasted two years. Our last publisher, Berkley/Jove, decided the series lacked mass-market clout, ending it after the publication of Blood Mountain in 1981. I was relieved, because Tiny and I were never going to win a Pulitzer for our fiction. I hoped to pursue projects with substance. The books were more like stenography than novels of my own making. They were part reality but mostly fantasy and fiction straight out of Tiny’s biker culture.
Tiny died suddenly in 1984. At the end he was telling his stories to another potboiler novelist, but this time he wasn’t getting fifty percent of a byline and royalties. A Reno newspaper editor told me he had walked into her office with his scrapbook, hoping to find one more writer willing to chronicle his tales tall and true. He found it hard to go on boring stakeouts to pick up punks, having enjoyed the attention when Linda Ronstadt and the Skipper from Gilligan’s Island attended a lavish book party the publisher had thrown for him. No longer did Larry King, Tom Snyder and PM Magazine ask him to tell nation-wide audiences about his exploits.
I never saw Tiny again after an autograph session in California late in 1981. He was the king of hyperbole and a ring-tailed roarer, and a throwback to the days of the legendary bellowing boaster Mike Fink. Although we had our serious arguments, I respected his incredible storytelling skills. (I do keep in touch with Tiny’s children, although it has been 36 years since I babysat them). Every now and then I think about 100 percent rewriting those Bounty Hunter books, and putting those chauvinistic, foul-mouth characters into a work of literary detective fiction. That will never happen, of course. Tiny died of a heart attack in July of 1984. It was the worst year of my life, losing this co-author, my father, and a baby to miscarriage all in a couple months’ time.
But Jimmy Dale Noble stayed in touch with me by mail and phone even after I’d taken a job teaching journalism at Ball State University and wrote serious works about hazing, the environment, and author profiles. In the late eighties Jimmy Dale and I reunited twice briefly when I came to Missouri to write profiles on third baseman George Brett and rodeo clown Leon Coffee. Tiny had cast a wide, though not long, shadow over Jimmy, and now I saw him as his own person–not a mere model for a stock character. He told me stories about his days as a high rigger, a dangerous job requiring agility and guts. To keep their nerve, most tree toppers chew tobacco, he said. He didn’t like the sour taste and puffed cigarettes.
“We’d start at the very bottom and take limbs off as we went up,” Jimmy Dale once wrote me in a letter. “We’d keep going up while whacking off limbs until the remaining top was only 16 inches in diameter. The undercut was made as far as possible without getting the saw stuck, and a small, narrow notch was supposed to fall. Then, when everything was still, the final cut was made, and the top went into space. The jar from the top breaking free usually caused the giant post to sway 15 to 30 feet like an oversized whip. I’ve been damn near shaken from my perch more than once. The only time I’ve felt so free was while skydiving.”
During those visits we began talking about fiction and how loggers have been excluded from the serious novelistic treatment given to cowboys and whalers. We devised an outline for a novel about a logger that had elements in it of myth and suspense, with a comic tone throughout.
We collaborated in person, by phone, and by mail. I told Jimmy I was through writing potboilers, and he said he’d like nothing better than to write fiction in the vein of his Missouri hero Mark Twain. Neither of us expected to make more than $2,500 apiece for a literary novel, and so we had to write in the little time our paying day jobs left us. We set the novel in St. Joe, Missouri, Jimmy Dale’s birthplace and home of the Pony Express. He took me to rugged brush-and-timber country to set scenes. He knew trees by their bark and leaves. In a sawmill, when workers cut rough timber into boards, he identified species by their sawdust scent.
In time, the experiences from his life became the experiences of the protagonist in our thickening manuscript. I knew more about his life than I did my own. I lived too much in my mind, and I envied the self-assured way he accepted life’s dangerous realities.
Jimmy Dale referred to himself as a river rat; he was reared on a farm along the Missouri River near the stockyards of St. Joe. He and other country kids entered the pens of diseased cattle at night to have rodeo competitions. His life was shaped by the Mighty Mo and, like him, the river could be calm or wild. Near the farm was a long bridge that led to Kansas. As a young man he took a dare in early winter, “when it was colder than a well digger’s butt in a drainpipe,” and jumped, regretting the decision before his feet split the current.
He used to tell me that there were times when the river was so peaceful (“peacable” was his word) that he preferred a seat on the bank to one in heaven. All a river rat knew about a perfect world was a day on a sandbar with temperatures in the sixties, putting a worm with a great personality on a hook. We would steal breaks from writing to fish–taking legal pads with us to discuss structure, characters, plotting–and that’s how I remember him in my mind’s eye. The breeze is ruffling his greying hair, and his line is shaking. I see him tense for a second, hoping the cause is a fat catfish and not the wind from the east.
Jimmy Dale said his favorite fish was the Missouri goblin fish, named that because you only could catch one at the stroke of midnight on Halloween. The goblin fish–so big that two barges and a tugboat were required to get one to shore–was a picky eater. The only bait it would take a June bug weighing 63 pounds. “And everyone knows June bugs are scarce in October,” Jimmy Dale would deadpan.
The joy I found in collaborating on our novel equals the rush of creativity I experience while writing creative nonfiction under the guidance of a capable editor. I have a hint of what it is like for performing arts professionals to collaborate on a beautiful work, or a symphony to put on a world premiere. When human beings collaborate on a work of art, there is a meeting of sensibilities and souls that nothing, save the birth of a child, can match for euphoria and dread and hope.
The novel won’t be finished. Last October, right before goblin-fish season, Jimmy Dale died of a coronary. Brain-dead, he lingered for hours. His heart didn’t want to quit.
Farewell, partner. I’ll miss your friendship, your stories, our collaboration. You and I didn’t fail at writing that novel. We ran out of money and time.
Oh hell, you’d say to that, for you regarded sentimentality as unmanly. We failed awright—so sue us. Grab your fishin’ pole.
The journalist in me searches for fact. We failed, we failed. But we tried harder than many who rule.
I celebrate the lives of Tiny and Jimmy, especially as I get closer to the end of my own life. “What’s life been like in heaven?” I will want to know.
They’ll probably answer at once. “Who told you that you died and came to heaven?”
That was Tiny and Jimmy for you.