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Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The desert read is not like the beach read

Stephen Amidon has a nice overview of books about Arizona in Salon. The publication being Salon, the letters about the article are along the lines of, "how on earth could you neglect..." and "Monument Valley is in Utah!" and "Yes, but all the photographs of it are taken in Arizona!" So I'll add my two cents about desert literature to the blog instead of the letters page.

How on earth could Amidon neglect Joy Williams' The Quick and the Dead? The book is weird but not whimsical, although I may be biased because one of the main characters is named Alice, and she thinks about stuff like this:
The kids' mother moved one big arm and groped around in the backseat. The car veered down the road, Alice staring stoically ahead, until she retrieved what she was after, a cocktail in a can. "Want a pop?" she said. Alice shook her head. "Sure?" the woman said. "It's mostly fruit juice."

I want ... a scar, Alice thought. A scar that would send shivers up people's spines but would not elicit pity. She didn't want that kind of scar.

No, really, it's not whimsical. It's a very moving book, actually, although it's difficult to tie up the strands of the plot into a single description. I guess it would be something like: three teenage girls drift through the desert, meet a taxidermist and assorted oddballs, learn about death and grieving.

I read it for the first time during the last summer I spent in Albuquerque. I worked for an alternative weekly paper and my first story was about the lack of landscaping budget planned for the reconstruction of the two interstate highways that intersect in Albuquerque. Because of the extreme water shortage in the Southwest, planners have to get creative about landscaping. The result is called xeriscaping: using low-water plants and a lot of rocks and sand. You have to learn to appreciate the subtleties of the color tan, but it can look very nice if it's done well (my mother's yard underwent several transformations from a "sea" of maroon lava rocks to a "dry stream bed" surrounded by chamisa and desert willows over the years). I wrote a story about the how the city and state bickered about who would pay for landscaping and maintenance on the roadside. They may never have come to an agreement about the issue, although the highway and retaining walls look good. I didn't have a car, so I walked everywhere, including a brief jaunt on the side of an access road when I needed to get to the state highway division. I became well acquainted with desert flora, or the lack thereof, and I loved this passage from Williams' book, which is about Sonoran flora but resonated nonetheless:
A black bird, a phainopepla, rocketed past and alighted on a trembling mesquite bush. Alice felt that the desert was looking at her, that it kept coming closer, incuriously. She stared into the distance, seeing it as something ticking, something about to arrive. A brief, ferocious wind came up and a Styrofoam cup sailed by and impaled itself upon an ocotillo. She started back toward the park's entrance, walking not along the road but through the desert itself. Cars and vans occasionally passed by. Tiny heads were what she saw, behind closed windows. She walked quickly, sometimes breaking into a run, through the gulleys and over the rocks, past the strange growths, all living their starved, difficult lives. Everything had hooks or thorns. Everything was saw-edged and spiny-pointed. Everything was defensive and fierce and determined to live. She liked this stuff. It all had a great deal of character. At the same time, it was here only because it had adapted to the circumstances, the external and extreme circumstances of its surroundings.

Plants were lucky because when they adapted it wasn't considered a compromise. It was more difficult for a human being, a girl.

She was never going to seek gainful employment again, that was for certain. She'd remain outside the public sector. She'd be an anarchist, she'd travel with jaguars. She was going to train herself to be totally irrational. She'd fall in love with a totally inappropriate person. She'd really work on it, but abandon would be involved as well. She'd have different names, a.k.a. Snake, a.k.a. Snow--no, that was juvenile. She wanted to be extraordinary, to possess a savage glitter.


Blogger Meg Lyman on Wed Jun 21, 01:59:00 PM:
Love it. When we were in Albuquerque a few months ago, we both realized just how alive it was. Wherever we went, we saw roadrunner, quail, rabbits, and owls. I have also come to love xeriscaping, which has really evolved. It's actually become quite beautiful. I find myself wondering why people on the East Coast don't do it.
Blogger Jazz nel pomeriggio on Sat Sep 19, 10:01:00 AM:
Nice to find a quote from the Quick and the Dead. I am right now translating it in Italian.

Cheers, Marco