The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

By Michael Reid Busk

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Posted April 8, 2010 in Arts & Culture

The problem with the desert is that no one knows it. The problem with the desert is that everyone knows it. We’ve seen sunset photos of Joshua Tree, watched The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, cheered for Road Runner (or perhaps Wile E. Coyote), but at the same time, we’re not Cahuilla hunter/gatherers, we’re not Chuckwallas. When we make the trek out into the Mojave, we’re tourists who have already memorized the guidebook. 

A new anthology, No Place for a Puritan: The Literature of California’s Deserts, wants to be the new guidebook. The anthology, edited by College of the Desert professor Ruth Nolan, is a thematic tour, its seven sections grouped around themes of “dangers, crossings, refuge and exile, the lure of the desert, making a home there, changes, and conversation and protection,” as Nolan writes in her introduction.

But despite the many themes and eras represented, from indigenous prehistory to the present, nearly every piece seems to mention the sun, silence and creosote bushes, which shouldn’t be surprising: the desert is often hot, typically quiet and has the market cornered on creosote bushes. It shouldn’t be surprising, and it isn’t: that’s the problem. Someone who’d never traveled west of the Mississippi but had seen Raising Arizona could have written outlines for most of the entries if you’d given him the section title. For instance, “Dangers of the Desert”: heatstroke, dehydration, snakes. Or “Crossings, Past and Present”: settlers/prospectors journey and many die from heatstroke, dehydration, snakes. Or “Lure of the Desert”: The stark beauty of the desert is captivating to visitors . . .  as long as they pack plenty of water and avoid rattlers.

Because the deserts of California are so sparsely populated, relatively little has been written about them, and as such, a too-large proportion of those writings made the cut. The anthology is overrun with travelogues, diary and nature poetry, most of which pick at the same over-mined vein: the desert is harsh, but also lovely. The anthology is filled with clichéd, excessively poeticized and faux-deep lines, like Gayle Brandeis’s “But that’s what/The desert is, isn’t it? Life boiled/Down to its most basic parts”; Aldous Huxley’s “this great crystal of silence”; Dick Barnes’s “a dry lake is a mirror, where the river/Gives itself up to the sky”; Judy Kronenfeld’s “You still see nothing/That is not there/But now you sense/Everything that is.”

Another sign of insufficient material: the anthology offers not one but two accounts of Japanese internment during WWII, perhaps to lend the imprimatur of political correctness. In an effort to inject a more literary imprimatur, brief entries are included by famous writers not generally associated with the region: Sylvia Plath, the aforementioned Huxley, John Steinbeck, but of that impressive trio only Steinbeck manages mostly to transcend cliché.

Most of the anthology’s standouts are fiction and reportage, including UCR professor Tod Goldberg’s fine story “The Salt,” the marvelously creepy excerpt from Frank Norris’s nineteenth-century novel McTeague, Clara Jeffrey’s first-rate article “Go West, Old Man,” an excerpt from Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, and Barry Lopez’s philosophical/historical meditation “The Stone Horse.” But perhaps the best is among the best known, that famous-for-good-reason section from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in which Thompson and his lawyer scream across the desert in a red Chevy ragtop, drunk on whiskey and high on everything imaginable. In comparison to this gleeful tour-de-force, too much of the anthology seems prettified, somber, predictable. If you want to know the desert, stick to spaghetti western; you’ll have more fun.

No Place For a Puritan: The Literature of California’s Deserts, edit. by Ruth Nolan, Heyday Books, Paperback. 352 pgs. List price $21.95.


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