Desert Gothic. By Don Waters
Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 2007. 152 pages, $16.00.
Reviewed by Andrea Clark Mason
Washington State University, Pullman
Waters’ collection shows the breadth and depth of characters who populate the contemporary American West: recent immigrants, their smugglers, middle class heterosexuals, drug dealers, senior citizens, artists, dead people, rednecks, gamblers, Mormons, bisexuals, bikers, writers, limo drivers, and prostitutes. Many of the stories take place in Nevada (Carson City, Virginia City, Las Vegas, Reno) or Arizona, but Waters paints a sweeping picture of the desert as a whole – its vistas, its characters, its atmospheric texture. The desert in this book is not only hot, but also unending in its immensity and ability to absorb or deflect characters’ pain. The desert is both a place to escape – as Eli does, the protagonist in “Mormons in Heat,” going from town to town as a missionary–and to return to, as the main character of “Sheets” does in his ambivalent homecoming after a failed relationship.
Whether they are fleeing a defunct relationship, encountering the physical brutality of a terminal illness, or unable to face the reality of a family member’s death, Waters’ characters are all incredibly wounded and insanely alive, making decisions as if it is their last year. Sometimes, it is. In “The Bulls of San Luis,” Cye, a terminally ill man, shuttles illegal immigrants from the Arizona border to Las Vegas. The rampant death of illegals seems to foreshadow Cye’s own death: “Rumor has it, beneath every other rock near the border is a grave” (101). Cye’s desire not only to see that illegals get to a destination, but also to light candles on the burial spots of those who didn’t make it points towards acceptance of his own mortality.
Often, in Desert Gothic, characters at loose ends are buoyed up by those who do not read, do not paint, and do not do as they’re asked. In the first story, “What to do with the Dead,” the protagonist, Julian, drives to the nearly ghost town of Choking, Nevada to deliver the ashes of a woman his own age: “I asked for water. Instead, Mr. Ellis filled two shot glasses with cheap vodka and handed me one” (13).
Waters shows us a West and a desert whose unforgiving geographic and cultural landscape cultivate flawed, sometimes physically intimidating, but always deeply human characters. Waters’ desert is for running away, but we might meet someone who won’t let us, whose need will give us a reason to finally confront our own fears and flaws. Waters’ sparse prose and accurate sense of detail leave readers wondering if on a drive through Nevada they might run into Peter with the deformed cranium or Jane-from-Wyoming with the decayed tooth and the size 16 panties, or, at the very least, become “bleached by the sun, stripped off by the harsh desert wind” (140). In the tradition of Edward Abbey and Terry Tempest Williams, Waters has captured the reality of urban and rural desert life and the cultural complexities the twenty-first century has brought with it.
Originally appeared in Western American Literature