I'm a storyteller, which is probably one reason I've lasted
as long as I have in the desert. Every form of life seems larger
here, at once more obvious and more secret. How can a cactus or
Phoenix exist? Definitely a quirky place. So I'll recommend some
stories that grew on dust and hidden water, and are easy to read
for their quirkiness, their prickery obviousness and secrets. No
less true just because they're classified as fiction:
- B. Traven. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. New York: Alfred A.
- Blistered prospectors try for gold and each other's throats
in the mountains of Mexico; today these guys would be in
Cadillacs and land speculation in Nevada. A great study of
breakdown in the desert, a land always ready to grind greed
entirely into fine madness, often without witnesses: "The bush is
so wide and the Sierra so great and lonely that you disappear and
nobody knows where you are or what has befallen you . . . the
trail was difficult, as all trails are in the Sierra Madre."
- John Nichols. The Milagro Beanfield War. New York: Holt, Reinhart
and Winston, 1974.
- A deadly comical look at conflicting generations of
culture - read that,
human foolishness - in New Mexico. Pig-befriending Hispanics
convert food stamps to bullets to repel invading Anglo
stockbrokers and Birkenstockers. (Did you hear the one about how
the Pueblo tribes felt when the conquistadors rode up the Rio
Grande?) We're constantly being invaded here, partly because the
desert offers a lack of boundaries and we're still not really
civilized. "Death, decked out in a sombrero, a serape, and shiny
silver spurs, a spicy carnival apparition, dancing over the
little village, chuckled like a dove, winked in a joking,
comradely fashion. . . ."
- Edward Abbey. Fire on the Mountain. New York: The Dial Press,
1962. Reprint, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1978.
- Not as well known as Abbey's profile fiction and nonfiction,
this quick little novel sums how the desert has been - and is
still - ruled by distant and hostile government. Based on fact: as
the White Sands Missile Range was imposed by federal takeover of
private homesteads, some ranchers rebelled. Or we could be
talking about the nuclear test bombs that contaminated civilians
in Utah, or the radioactive wastes being dumped on New Mexico
today, or the huge portions of desert sacrificed to military
operations. With a sparseness of character and language, Abbey
conveys how people root to this land against orders. And how "the
country of dreams" can turn bad.
- Elmore Leonard. Valdez Is Coming. New York: Bantam Books, 1970.
- The master of the modern crime novel used to write Westerns,
and this one is cocked and smartly aimed. Not until the last page
do Hispanics, blacks, Native Americans and women exact their
joint revenge on the rich, heavy-handed, sexist range king who,
oh yeah, also committed a couple of murders. There's even some
Christ imagery being dragged around. A paradoxical bit of desert
wisdom is imparted: El Segundo really isn't.
- Tony Hillerman. Dance Hall of the Dead. New York: Harper and Row,
- Who could've predicted that so many readers gaining exposure
to the American desert's people and landscape would do it through
a series of cop novels? Hillerman's mannered procedurals invite
us inside Navajo ways and the thinking of Navajo police. We also
get glimpses inside other tribes: Hopi, Zuni, FBI, DEA and
unaffiliated Anglo. In Dance Hall, we learn what Zuni mythology
requires: the penalty for sacrilege is death. We also have a good