Arid Lands Newsletter--link to home pageNo. 35, Spring/Summer 1994
The Deserts in Literature

Desert Reading: A List by Ray Ring

Novelist & Journalist


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. Knopf, 1935.
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, 1973.
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 time.

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