Wells, Ken 1948-
Wells, Ken 1948-
Born August 9, 1948 (one source says 1949), in Houma, LA; son of Rex (a timekeeper at a sugar mill) and Henrietta K. (a homemaker) Wells; married Lisa Newmark (a teacher of English as a second language); children: Sara, Becca. Education: Nicholls State University, B.A., 1971; University of Missouri, Columbia, M.A., 1977. Hobbies and other interests: Playing blues and jazz guitar, fishing.
Journalist. Houma Courier, Houma, LA, reporter, 1967-76; Miami Herald, Miami, FL, reporter, 1978-82; Wall Street Journal, New York, NY, reporter, San Francisco bureau, 1982-90, London bureau, 1990-93, writer and senior editor for "Page One," 1993-2006; Condé Nast Portfolio, New York, NY, senior editor, 2006—.
Pulitzer Prize finalist for reporting, 1982; American Society of Newspaper Editor's Award for headline writing, 1993.
"CATAHOULA BAYOU" TRILOGY; NOVELS
Meely LaBauve, Random House (New York, NY), 2000.
Junior's Leg, Wall Street Journal (New York, NY), 2001.
Logan's Storm, Random House (New York, NY), 2002.
(Editor) Herd on the Street: Animal Stories from the Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal (New York, NY), 2003.
Travels with Barley: A Journey through Beer Culture in America, Free Press (New York, NY), 2004, published as Travels with Barley: The Quest for the Perfect Beer Joint, Berkley Books (New York, NY), 2008.
Crawfish Mountain (novel), Random House (New York, NY), 2007.
Contributor to periodicals, including Harper's, Reader's Digest, Oxford American, and others.
Ken Wells, a features writer and editor for the "Page One" section of the Wall Street Journal, has won critical praise and a wide readership for his "Catahoula Bayou" trilogy of novels. These rollicking, light-hearted tales are set in the sleepy bayou country of the author's native Louisiana and feature a colorful cast of characters. Wells's depiction of the Cajun patois, his lively sense of humor, and his talents for storytelling have led some reviewers to compare aspects of his writing to that of Mark Twain.
Wells was born in the town of Houma, about forty miles southwest of New Orleans, Louisiana, and grew up on a farm near Bayou Black, a small Cajun community on the edge of the Atchafalaya Swamp. Wells's father worked at the local sugar mill, while his wife raised the couple's six sons. "I come from a family of storytellers, though of the oral tradition, and loved to tell stories even before I could write," Wells once told CA. "Happily, writing was one of the few things in school I was good at. I worked on my high school newspaper (though without distinction)."
After graduating from high school, Wells enrolled at Nicholls State University in nearby Thibodaux. Not long afterward, circumstances dictated that he begin working part time as a news reporter at the Houma Courier. "I had temporarily flunked out of the above-named college (having majored in ping-pong and beer drinking that semester) and was desperate to find a job since my car note was overdue, and my dad was on my case. I was in a rapidly failing rock band at the time and knew we were not the next Rolling Stones. The Courier ran a want ad for a part-time reporter at $1.87 an hour. I applied and, mercifully, the paper had virtually no standards and hired me," Wells told CA. "The editor at the time also knew my grandpa, though it wasn't the kind of ‘connection’ most people think of. Pop, as we called him, was a character about town who was good at two things: catfishing and beer drinking, often simultaneously. But he had an uncanny knack for pulling out forty-pound lunkers from the bayou that ran through the middle of town. And when he did catch such fish (and particularly if he'd been drinking) he'd often drag them up the stairs of the Courier, dripping catfish water everyplace, and demand they take his picture. (They usually did.) At any rate, when the editor made the connection, he looked at me and smiled and said: ‘If you have half the gumption of your grandpa, you can probably do this job.’"
Wells continued to take courses at Nicholls State University while working part time. Oddly enough, it was his experience at the college and not at the newspaper that convinced him that his future was in journalism. "My ‘breakthrough’ actually came under the tutelage of a prof at Nicholls State College in Thibodaux," Wells told CA. "His name is Al Delahaye, and he convinced me that writing is ninety percent hard work and discipline, but absolutely worth all the effort."
Wells earned his B.A. in 1971. He then spent five years running the Houma newspaper before enrolling in the University of Missouri's M.A. program in journalism. Following his 1977 graduation, Wells took a job as a reporter at the Miami Herald. He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1982 for a series of articles he wrote about a botched government flood-control project in southern Florida. Later that same year, Wells left the Herald and went to work at the Wall Street Journal. He spent the next eight years working in the newspaper's San Francisco bureau before he was transferred to London in 1990. Three years later, in 1993, Wells returned to the United States, where he joined the Journal staff in New York as a senior editor and writer for "Page One."
Wells and his family settled in New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York. During the daily rail commute to work, he began working on a novel inspired by characters and situations he had encountered as a young man growing up on the Louisiana bayou and working as a reporter at the Houma Courier. Wells told CA: "this was actually my third stab at a novel, the first two having been roundly rejected by everyone as too cluttered and disorganized with too many characters. A kindly editor at a small publishing house on Long Island took pains, however, to write me a nice rejection note, saying she liked my style but that I needed to find a better (simpler) story and get closer to my characters. I puzzled over this for awhile (the getting closer to my characters part, at least) and then, wham, the notion of a first-person story told by a kid popped into my head. I wrote ‘the novel’ in twenty giddy days."
The fruit of Wells's labors was Meely LaBauve, which was published in 2000. The book, which is set in the early 1960s, chronicles the adventures of fifteen-year-old Emile LaBauve—the "Meely" of the title—and his widower father, a game poacher with a fondness for drink; Logan LaBauve's life is a perpetual struggle to stay one step ahead of the law. The action heats up when a long-running feud with the town bully, Junior Guidry, explodes into violence and attempted murder. As a result, Meely gets thrown into jail, and his father goes on the lam out in the bayou.
Reviewing Meely LaBauve for World and I, John Lowe commented: "Meely LaBauve will tickle your imagination, cher, but also, like Tabasco, bring tears and delight. You will, as we say here in Cajun country, pass a good time." Library Journal reviewer Lawrence Rungren hailed the Meely LaBauve character as "something of a twentieth-century Huck Finn." Rungren went on to state that "Wells has cooked up a zestful gumbo of a first novel, a rich and raucous coming-of-age tale redolent with the flavor of the bayou." Kristine Huntley, writing in Booklist, praised Meely LaBauve as "a charming and touching first novel" that is "an extremely satisfying read." School Library Journal reviewer Susan H. Woodcock wrote: "This evocative coming-of-age story is redolent of Cajun culture…. Much like Huck Finn, this picaresque journey through another time and place is warm and funny and thought-provoking as Meely discovers the opposite sex and encounters racism and bullying with a natural aplomb."
The critical and commercial success of Wells's debut novel spurred him to write two sequels based on characters from Meely LaBauve. He told CA: "After [the book] came out to pretty good reviews and started selling modestly, but well above the expectations, I started (naturally) to think about other books. But the only story that came to mind was Junior's story—Junior Guidry of course being the reprehensible bully in the first book. My agent and (for a moment) my editor both thought I'd lost my mind. But I'd basically come of age at the Courier during South Louisiana's go-go Oil Patch days and was a front-row spectator to how oil development forever changed the character of the place. I felt like I knew Junior and the times that he lived in; what motivated him and most importantly, how he might be redeemed. Pretty soon, I had ten thousand words and I knew there was no turning back."
In Junior's Leg Wells picks up the story of Junior Guidry, the town bully, fifteen years after the events depicted in Meely LaBauve. Junior has lost a leg in an oil-rig accident and is living alone in an old trailer on the edge of the Great Catahoula Swamp. He is slowly drinking himself to death and slipping ever deeper into oblivion when Mary Parfait, a woman on the run from the law, comes into his life. As Junior's feelings for Mary begin to deepen, he wrestles with the decision of whether or not to turn her in for the reward or to follow his heart.
Booklist reviewer Kristine Huntley wrote: "The magic of Wells's novels is his optimism for his characters: even angry, bitter Junior has a shot at redemption and happiness. Told from Junior's point of view in Cajun dialect, the novel is filled with both humor and honesty." Jim Coan, writing in Library Journal, praised Junior's Leg as a "vivid, spicy work," while reviewer Richard Bernstein, writing in the New York Times, commented: "Mr. Wells handles his themes, all the way from greed to valor, with a controlled exuberance and an amused tenderness towards his characters."
The third and final book in the "Catahoula Bayou" trilogy is Logan's Storm. Here Wells picks up his story where he left off in Meely LaBauve, recounting the adventures of Meely's daddy, who has disappeared into the bayou with his friend Chilly after shooting up a police car. With the help of an attractive widow named Annie, whom the pair meet in the swamp, Chilly returns home to his family in Mississippi, while Logan and Annie head for Florida and a job for Logan at an alligator farm.
Reviewing the novel for Booklist, Kristine Huntley called "Logan's Storm an affectionate and rewarding character study filled with outrageous adventure and humor." Library Journal reviewer Lawrence Rungren concluded that "Wells has concocted another winner," and New York Times reviewer David Kirby wrote: "The action never lets up, and neither does the flow of woodsy know-how. Logan's Storm is a swamp survival manual with a sugary romance at its core."
Wells served as editor of Floating off the Page: The Best Stories from the Wall Street Journal's Middle Column, a "best-of" collection of sixty-seven off-beat articles written after 1975. The range of quirky topics covered includes everything from toad-licking to dental braces for sheep and efforts to grow low-flatulence beans. Reviewing the anthology for Booklist, Vanessa Bush commented that Floating off the Page "offers humor, insight, and sharp observations as well as a cultural slant on the eccentric and the mundane." Jack Covert, writing in the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report, concluded: "While this book won't help you change the world or change your life, it will stimulate and broaden your mind."
Wells is also the author of Travels with Barley: A Journey through Beer Culture in America, a nonfiction title that deals with the place of beer in American culture. He told CA: "Beer is a fifty-five-billion-dollar industry in the U.S.—bigger than recorded music. Think of it as a huge metaphorical river running through the heart of American commerce and through the hearts and minds of America's eighty-odd million beer drinkers. If you got on that river, what would you find? So that's what I'm doing: I'm floating up, or down, or upside down in the River of Beer." Wells's book presents a history of how large American breweries such as Anheuser-Busch were established, and focuses on how various marketing campaigns, such as those for light beer, served to expand the industry. A reviewer for Kirkus Reviews observed: "Wells's mission here is not to anoint the best beer … but rather to gather a sense of how beer fits into the American everyday."
Wells is also the editor of Herd on the Street: Animal Stories from the Wall Street Journal. In a review for Booklist, Nancy Bent commented that the Wall Street Journal "prides itself on presenting arcane stories for the amusement of its readers, and animal stories rank among readers' favorites." Wells, a fan of animal stories, took inspiration for his title from the newspaper's famous "Heard on the Street" section, which he thought would lend an interesting pun to the work. In his review for Editor & Publisher, Joe Strupp called the book an "eye-opener."
Crawfish Mountain is a humorous farce of a novel in which Wells addresses serious topics of importance in southern Louisiana with a light touch. Oil executives from a company referred to in the book as Big Tex are threatening to run pipelines and shipping lanes right through Cajun country, which will wreak havoc on the areas that are considered best for red-fishing. And the locals don't even want to consider just what those same executives will dump into the bayou when no one is looking. Justin Pierre, a beer-drinking diesel mechanic who loves to fish, has inherited a small marshland area from his grandfather, and there is no way he is going to let some big oil company swoop in and destroy it. Wells's story includes a crooked governor named Joe T. Evangeline who loves nothing more than chasing women, a healthy case of bribery, some backwater deals, and of course a secret recipe for crawfish boil. Bob Minzesheimer, in a review for USA Today, commented that "Wells's best character is the land itself: the ancient marsh island." Ian Chipman, writing for Booklist, declared that "Wells's lively take on life on the bayou is precocious without succumbing to affectation." As with his previous books, Wells mines his own knowledge of Louisiana and the political acumen he developed while working as a reporter there.
Asked if he has a philosophy that guides him in his work, Wells told CA, "Writing is a divine compulsion requiring religious-like devotion to discipline, truth, and the beauty and power of words, and a strong tolerance for pain, solitude, and rejection."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Austin American-Statesman, April 16, 2000, Gary Lavergne, review of Meely LaBauve,
Booklist, January 1, 2000, Kristine Huntley, review of Meely LaBauve, p. 881; November 15, 2000, Bonnie Smothers, review of Meely LaBauve, p. 622; August, 2001, Kristine Huntley, review of Junior's Leg, p. 2093; April 15, 2002, Vanessa Bush, review of Floating off the Page: The Best Stories from the Wall Street Journal's "Middle Column," p. 1364; September 1, 2002, Kristine Huntley, review of Logan's Storm, p. 61; November 1, 2003, Nancy Bent, review of Herd on the Street: Animal Stories from the Wall Street Journal, p. 466; October 15, 2004, Mark Knoblauch, review of Travels with Barley: A Journey through Beer Culture in America, p. 373; September 15, 2007, Ian Chipman, review of Crawfish Mountain, p. 32.
Editor & Publisher, February 1, 2004, Joe Strupp, "Beyond the Bulls and Bears," review of Herd on the Street.
Entertainment Weekly, review of Meely LaBauve, p. 98.
Greater Baton Rouge Business Report, June 4, 2002, Jack Covert, "Top Books for Managers and Managers-to-Be," p. 53.
Hudson Review autumn, 2000, Susan Balée, "Maximalist Fiction," pp. 519-520.
Kirkus Reviews, July 15, 2002, review of Logan's Storm, p. 992; August 15, 2004, review of Travels with Barley, p. 798.
Library Journal, January, 2000, Lawrence Rungren, review of Meely LaBauve, p. 164; July, 2001, Jim Coan, review of Junior's Leg, p. 127; September 15, 2002, Lawrence Rungren, review of Logan's Storm, p. 94.
Los Angeles Times, August 26, 2001, Susan Salter Reynolds, "Discoveries," p. 11.
Newsweek, April 26, 1982, "A Prize Feud over the Pulitzers," p. 57.
New York Times, March 5, 2000, Jeff Waggoner, review of Meely LaBauve, p. 24; August 15, 2001, Richard Bernstein, "Down along the Bayou, Fate Elevates a Lowlife," p. E8; September 15, 2002, David Kirby, review of Logan's Storm, p. 25.
Publishers Weekly, December 13, 1999, review of Meely LaBauve, p. 61; July 16, 2001, review of Junior's Leg, p. 156; April 8, 2002, review of Floating off the Page, p. 216; July 8, 2002, review of Logan's Storm, p. 27.
School Library Journal, September, 2000, Susan H. Woodcock, review of Meely LaBauve, p. 259.
USA Today, November 29, 2007, Bob Minzesheimer, "Crawfish Mountain Cooks up One Steamy Jambalaya of a Tale," p. 8.
Wall Street Journal, August 24, 2001, Elizabeth Bukowski, review of Junior's Leg, p. W8.
World and I, August, 2000, John Lowe, "Huck Finn on the Bayou—To Come Later," p. 234.
BookPage,http://www.bookpage.com/ (January 3, 2003), Todd Smith, review of Meely LaBauve.
Decatur Daily online,http://www.decaturdaily.com/ (January 3, 2003), Nancy C. Dallas, "Desperate Stranger Brings Redemption."
Ken Wells Home Page,http://www.bayoubro.com (January 3, 2003).