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Dozens of nonfiction books have delved into the history of nuclear facilities in the West and the Manhattan Project, detailing the Department of War’s secret acquisition of land in Los Alamos, the rapid emigration of eminent scientists, and their feverish work to build the atomic bomb. But when it comes to the human drama behind the science, several writers have turned to fiction, and women’s perspectives, to tell the story.

TaraShea Nesbit’s poised 2014 novel The Wives of Los Alamos delivers the details of life in the top-secret town through the incantatory collective first-person voice of the scientists’ wives. In Nora Gallagher’s elegant 2007 novel Changing Light, set in 1945 Los Alamos, a female painter befriends a scientist injured in a radiation accident who can’t disclose any details of his work.

Now, Elizabeth J. Church’s debut novel, The Atomic Weight of Love, draws on her personal history to spin a compelling tale of an intelligent woman whose dreams are deferred in service to her husband’s nuclear work. Church’s father was a research chemist recruited to the Manhattan Project. Her mother, a biologist, followed him to Los Alamos, where Church grew up.

Church tells the story of Meridian Wallace, an ambitious young woman who aims to earn her doctorate in ornithology, but is derailed by love and its consequences. Meridian earns a scholarship to the University of Chicago in 1941, and soon attracts Alden Whetstone, a physics professor whom she describes as “a wholly intellectual creature barely cognizant of the physical world and its requirements. I felt myself longing to soar along with him in the realm of pure ideas, of complete and total academic isolation.” They marry before he relocates to Los Alamos for the war effort; she eventually follows, and her plans to pursue a Ph.D. at Cornell crumble.

Church tracks Meridian for decades, as Alden turns into a controlling, antisocial fussbudget, and she languishes, neglected and unfulfilled, studying the local crow population in a desultory way. Meridian struggles toward self-actualization, gradually at first and then in a headlong rush when in 1970 she meets a handsome Vietnam vet, fresh from the commune, with long hair and love beads. The Atomic Weight of Love is a mid-life coming-of-age tale, set in an era when women had to wait a long time before they could put themselves first—if they ever could.

The Longest Night, the propulsive, nuanced debut by Andria Williams, similarly feels like the book this author was born to write. Williams’ husband is an active-duty naval officer, currently stationed in Colorado, and she conveys the interpersonal tensions of life in the military, both on the base and in town, with apt detail. The story begins in 1959, when Paul and Nat Collier move with their two young daughters to Idaho Falls, where Paul has been stationed to work on a clunky nuclear reactor. Even if readers know that this was the site in 1961 of America’s only fatal nuclear reactor meltdown, the suspense of The Longest Night only intensifies as it creeps toward that event.

Paul observes shoddy maintenance and incompetent leadership at the reactor, but keeps Nat in the dark so as not to worry her—white lies that soon become a symptom of their fraying marriage. Stress builds as Paul clashes with his lecherous and drunken superior officer. Meanwhile, Nat feels marooned without a car and judged by gossipy military wives in a town where “someone’s garbage can lid laying to the side and not securely clamped on the can: That was an event.” When Paul is deployed to Antarctica as a consequence of an impetuous mistake, Nat welcomes the friendship of a courteous local car repairman.

Williams has a knack for crafting taut scenes that increase tension, reveal character and entertain—the reckless dive that displays a young mother’s spirit and the strains in her marriage, the disastrous dinner party hosted by “one of those women … whose calculating mind was always at work on others of her sex, detecting their weaknesses like a mine-sniffing German shepherd,” and the small-town diner where there’s a “dinginess to the place, grime in every crevice, a sense of not quite caring.”

Williams writes with rich psychological insight into all her characters, who evolve and surprise, even the beastliest and youngest. Nat’s children, like Shakespeare’s fools, regularly pipe up with information that reveals the truth adults are trained to conceal.

These two novels focus on the kind of capable women drawn to the West by nuclear installations, only to find their potential squelched due to the mid-20th century’s primary focus on the work of men. As these women simmer and yearn, and the ’60s and ’70s dawn, we see their personal lives become as volatile as reactors.

You could fill a shelf with books set in the nuclear West. These two debut novels prove that the formidable power of nuclear facilities, the flawed humans who run them, and questions about the morality of these experiments continue to make for gripping drama.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

The Longest Night

By Andria Williams

Random House

400 pages, $27

The Atomic Weight of Love

By Elizabeth J. Church

Algonquin

352 pages, $15.95

Published in Literature

For Mark Sundeen, the search began with a guilty meat snack.

After two decades of bumming around the country—first as a outdoorsman stringing together jobs in the rural West, and later as a city-bound freelancer and “money-lung … whose sole purpose was to inhale dollars, transform them into pleasure, then exhale a stream of carbon into the air, feces into the sewer, and plastic containers into the landfill”—Sundeen settled in Missoula, Mont., seeking a simpler existence.

He got engaged to a woman with similar values, bike-commuted 14 miles daily, lived on garden feasts that took hours to concoct, and left the sink cluttered with wholesome dirt clods.

In a world where human appetites obliterate entire ecosystems, Sundeen recognized that what we choose to consume has moral implications. But one night while grocery shopping, faced with the $6.50 price tag on organic butter, he broke—and headed instead for the much-cheaper stuff in the conventional food aisles. There, he succumbed to a greasy breast of fried chicken, no doubt factory-raised on monoculture grain and cruelly caged with a throng of its brethren. Then, he wiped his sins away with a moist towelette and pedaled home. 

It’s a wry encapsulation of a conundrum that those who aspire to sustainability face: We carve out sacrifices here and there—Drive less! Recycle! Install solar!—until they interfere with other desires. In search of a clearer path, Sundeen, author of The Man Who Quit Money, sets out to find people who have gone far beyond what most of us consider “good enough.”

The result is The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America, a gorgeous new book that provides a contemporary twist on Wendell Berry’s 1977 classic The Unsettling of America. Where Berry argues that industrial agribusiness and modern capitalism have distanced people from the land and each other, with catastrophic consequences for the environment and communities, Sundeen explores a movement toward radical simplicity meant to solve those ills, digging deep into peculiarly American strains of utopianism and telling the stories of three couples trying to live out their ideals in wildly different places.

Olivia Hubert, a black horticulturalist, and Greg Willerer, a white former teacher with roots in the anarchist punk scene, create a tiny urban farm, hoping to localize and humanize Detroit’s inner-city food system—part of a bigger ambition to build a more-just version of a city bludgeoned by industrial collapse, racism and poverty. There is Ethan Hughes, who led a cross-country, bike-driven “superhero” expedition to do good, and his wife, Sarah Wilcox, a classically trained soprano, who created a car-free, electricity-free intentional community in Missouri that engages in nonviolent activism. Finally, we meet Luci Brieger and Steve Elliott, who founded a successful small organic farm not far from Missoula, and catalyzed a vibrant local food scene across western Montana.

The book is part memoir—chronicling Sundeen’s own new marriage and quest for a better life—part interwoven biography, and part social history. But though Sundeen finds beauty in each of the couples’ lives, he doesn’t flatten them into human Instagrams, “the soft-focus shots of sun-dappled mason jars and fresh-picked pears” that tug at the hearts of the rest of us cubicle-bound hordes. Hubert and Willerer must run off armed intruders from the crackhouse across the street instead of merely grappling with gophers as other farmers do. Hughes and Wilcox grow weary of the infighting so common in intentional communities and grope to maintain momentum when few of their peers are willing to commit to the enterprise for more than a summer. And Brieger and Elliott watch their dream enter mainstream society as yet another piece of the corporate machine: mega-organic agriculture that plants sprawling monocultures and sends plastic-sealed produce thousands of miles, driving right over the environmental and community benefits of the small, diversified farms that the couple built their own lives around.

The characters are weird, stubborn and strong, and Sundeen provides a nuanced picture of their beliefs, underpinned by both religious and social justice movements and influences ranging from Berry and Thomas Jefferson to the Quakers, Booker T. Washington, the Nation of Islam, Tolstoy and Gandhi. Importantly, Sundeen also acknowledges that the “renunciation of privilege” can become “just another means of exercising it.”

In the end, nobody finds revelatory answers, and yet all persist despite obstacles. And Sundeen himself recognizes that his own role is not to be a pioneer of simple living, but to be what he already is: a writer. The book seems to suggest that the true recipe for revolution is not utopianism, per se, but the emotional foundations from which its practitioners strive. In other words, to live right, one must find true purpose, work hard in its service and do the best good she can.

This review first appeared in High Country News.

The Unsettlers: In Search of the Good Life in Today’s America

By Mark Sundeen

Riverhead

324 pages, $26

Published in Literature

“The grass is dry and golden,

waves scour the headlands,

and the sea churns around me …”

When Teow Lim Goh first walked through the old immigration barracks on Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, she was waiting to learn her U.S. immigration status.

It was 2010, and Goh, a poet, had received a coveted H-1B visa, which allowed her to stay and work in the U.S. She had emigrated from Singapore, attended college in Michigan, and had been put into a lottery system for the visa. While her circumstances were much different than those of the Chinese immigrants who passed through Angel Island from 1910 to 1940, as she walked the island’s paths and looked out over the same ocean vista, she felt that she shared their feelings of hope and uncertainty.

From that visit came Goh’s first book, Islanders, a collection of fictional poems.

Called the “Ellis Island of the West,” the Angel Island Immigration Center processed Russians, Germans, Koreans, Indians, Japanese and Mexicans for entry into the U.S., but it was the Chinese who had the longest detention periods there and bore the brunt of institutionalized racism. It was during long periods of captivity on the island that they painted or carved poems in Chinese into the walls.

“It was a way to pass time and process their experiences,” Goh said in an interview.

The immigration center closed shortly after a fire burned down the women’s barracks in 1940. While the men’s barracks is marked with at least 135 poems, any poetry that the women might have scrawled there was turned to ash.

In Islanders, Goh attempts to fill that hole in history with words of her own. Written from the perspective of early Chinese immigrants and others, Goh’s poems are based on historical accounts. These would-be Americans faced a future full of uncertainty and the bureaucratic tangles of an emerging immigration system.

Goh eschews the rhyming structure of traditional Chinese poetry, and instead writes in free verse. Her sparse lines take on various perspectives: an immigrant, an immigration official or an American citizen.

“How much injustice do we have to abide by in order to survive?” Goh said. “Those are the questions I attempted to ask with those poems.”

Those questions have come to the fore since Donald Trump’s election. Trump attempted a temporary travel ban for seven Muslim majority countries (which was recently tweaked to six countries after legal troubles). The Trump administration has also rolled out a plan for enhanced immigration enforcement, including a border wall.

“Trump tapped into a sentiment that was already there,” Goh told me recently. “It did not start with him, but he articulated it. He was willing to breach standards of decorum to say aloud what a lot of people had been thinking.”

Islanders is a testament to the early roots of such sentiment. The Angel Island Immigration Center was the result of anti-immigrant laws passed in the late 1800s, particularly the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first of its kind in the U.S. It put limits on immigration based on race and class, keeping out any Chinese who were not merchants, teachers, clergy or diplomats. Unaccompanied women were assumed to be prostitutes and turned back, as was any immigrant without enough money, deemed “likely to become a public charge.” Judy Yung, an Angel Island historian, calls the law “the end of free immigration and the beginning of restrictive immigration.” The Chinese Exclusion Act set the tone for a number of other acts focused on banning specific races from immigrating.

Goh explores the outlooks of diverse individuals in her poems, separated into five sections. She delivers the voices of American workers at the immigration center, who became part of a system that separated families for months or longer and drove some immigrants to suicide. She delves into San Francisco’s 1877 Chinatown riots, where anti-Chinese anger, fueled by a downturn in jobs, led to violence against Chinese immigrants, who often worked for the railroads or mining companies.

An integral part to the story of Angel Island were the “paper sons,” who Goh also writes about. After San Francisco’s 1906 earthquake demolished immigration records, many Chinese men claimed legal residency, a claim that was hard to refute. This brought an increase in boys and young men who claimed to be the sons of Chinese residents of the U.S. Related only on paper, they came to be called “paper sons.” To uncover them, U.S. officials would interrogate newcomers for weeks, asking the layouts of their villages, the number of steps at their front doors, and other questions about their “families.” The wives of paper sons faced a double test, as they had to attest to who they were, as well as to the fictional past of their husbands. Any son, paper or real, who couldn’t pass the tests was sent back. If an immigrant appealed, he or she faced the prospect of life in cramped wooden barracks from six months to a year, as their case was resolved.

Goh’s book is an ode to people caught in an unfair system. Her poems are a mournful byproduct of imprisonment, though she says the lessons the islanders’ stories hold have gone largely unnoticed.

“The one thing I learned while researching this book is we don’t learn from history,” said Goh, who is now a U.S. citizen living in Colorado. “The history is there. We’ve been through this, but we’re still going through the same questions.”

Anna V. Smith is an editorial fellow at High Country News, where this review first appeared.

Islanders

By Teow Lim Goh

Conundrum

90 pages, $14.99

Published in Literature

It’s been 30 years since Marc Reisner’s landmark history of Western water, Cadillac Desert, was first published. The book’s dire tone set the pattern for much subsequent water writing. Longtime Albuquerque Journal reporter John Fleck calls it the “narrative of crisis”—an apocalyptic storyline about the West perpetually teetering on the brink of running dry.

When the book’s second edition was released in 1993, on the heels of a particularly dry string of years in California, Reisner saw fit to characterize the drought as a “punishment meted out to an impudent culture by an indignant God.”

Thanks to books like Cadillac Desert, Fleck writes, “I grew up with the expectation of catastrophe.” Yet in his own reporting, Fleck, who recently became director of the University of New Mexico’s Water Resources Program, discovered a very different story.

“Far from the punishment of an indignant God,” he writes, “I found instead a remarkable adaptability.”

Fleck’s new book, Water Is for Fighting Over … and Other Myths About Water in the West, chronicles the remarkable and often-overlooked adaptive capacity of the farmers and millions of urbanites who depend on the Colorado River. He highlights several irrigation districts and cities that have substantially reduced water use while enjoying higher farm incomes and supporting bigger populations, despite more than a decade and a half of serious drought.

The most fascinating parts of the book focus on river politics. One of Fleck’s great insights is that the Colorado is essentially a decentralized system where “no one has their hand on the tap.” The fundamental challenge is “problem-solving in a river basin where water crosses borders, where it must be shared, but where no one is in charge.”

The book draws its title from the old saw—often misattributed to Mark Twain and endlessly reiterated—that whiskey is for drinking but water is for fighting over. This is the primary “myth” Fleck takes on. The ferocity of Colorado River politics has been likened to the Middle East conflict, but as Fleck notes, a surprising spirit of collaboration has arisen on the Colorado over the last two decades.

Rather than fighting, he writes, the river’s water bosses have crafted a series of agreements that have increased water-use flexibility and buffered some of the effects of extreme drought. The members of the “network,” as Fleck puts it, are able to do that because they have a deeply rooted distrust of the vagaries of court, and have “come to the shared conclusion that arguing over legal interpretation is the wrong path.”

Indeed, the network’s members haven’t taken each other to court since 1952. But in arguing that collaboration is the great untold story, Fleck overlooks one of the most fascinating aspects of the Colorado’s recent history: the aggressive brinkmanship that also drives its politics.

Far from being averse to fighting, some members of the network—most famously Pat Mulroy, the former head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority—have actively used the threat of litigation to force counterparts to compromise and cooperate. That coercive pressure is the antagonistic yang to the cooperative yin. And therein lies the great paradox of the 21st-century Colorado River: The credible threat of legal assault, artfully deployed, has provided the anvil against which many of these cooperative agreements have been hammered out.

In fact, it was just such a provocation that ultimately catalyzed the agreements that Fleck lauds. In 2004, as the drought worsened, some water managers began telegraphing meticulously coded threats to each other over disputed interpretations of critical parts of the law of the river. The network effectively stood at the brink of legal war. Not long ago, John Entsminger, who worked as a lawyer for Mulroy at the time and is a prominent figure in Fleck’s story, told me: “It was unclear at that point whether we were going to negotiate, or whether we were headed toward the U.S. Supreme Court.”

It wasn’t a fight, but the plausible prospect of a fight, that forced water managers out of their entrenched positions to begin developing the series of agreements that, they hope, will keep us one step ahead of climate change and the still-deepening drought.

These days, the network’s members don’t like to talk about this coercive element in river politics. That’s largely because after their acrimony in 2004 spilled into public, they made a pact to keep their differences out of the media. But in spite of the apparent outbreak of peace, the water bosses continue to prepare for the possibility of war.

The story that Fleck tells is a hopeful one, and a very important one—but it’s not quite the whole story. Two and a half years ago, Entsminger replaced Pat Mulroy as the head of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. Entsminger is far more conciliatory than Mulroy. Yet in a candid moment not long after he took charge, he acknowledged to me that, sometimes, water really is for fighting over. Those who think otherwise do so at their own peril.

“We don’t want to fight,” Entsminger said. “But if we fight, we want to win.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

Water Is for Fighting Over ... and Other Myths about Water in the West

By John Fleck

Island Press

264 pages, $30

Published in Literature

It’s clear that many pop-culture fanatics like for the legacies of their heroes to be scrubbed and romanticized. For proof, you needn’t look much further than most biopics and TV shows about the entertainment business, in which character flaws may occasionally factor in, but are typically eclipsed by brilliance.

Cultural consumers of this revisionist mind who wish to learn about the rise of California rap should view Straight Outta Compton, the candy-coated 2015 big-screen dramatization of the saga behind N.W.A., hip-hop’s first explosive Los Angeles export. However, those who crave the dirty details—no matter how horrendous, despite how some characterizations may impact one’s feelings for beloved classics—will prefer to digest Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap. Authored and intensely researched by former LA Weekly music editor Ben Westhoff, the volume is as eloquently written as it is immensely raw in content. To borrow one from Ice Cube, it’s a “no Vaseline” sort of affair.

In a recent chat about his latest effort, Westhoff couldn’t recall the precise nature of his original pitch to publishers. He knew that he was rolling into familiar and even well-charted territory, but he also knew that although contributions like Have Gun Will Travel, Ronin Ro’s 1999 book subtitled The Spectacular Rise and Violent Fall of Death Row Records, delve into various cracks in the often-inaccurate popular narrative, there was still a mess of information buried in participants of varying significance.

Add in the extraordinary social unrest and the crack epidemic from which West Coast hip-hop was in large part born, as well as the unwieldy conspiracy theories that cloud almost any discussion of the subgenre—especially around the deaths of Eazy-E and Tupac—and Westhoff saw an opportunity to weave together puzzle pieces and fill gaps left by the legions who have mined similar spaces and begun to trim some of the taller tales.

Of course, reality is crazier than fiction, and it’s impossible to turn more than a couple of pages in Original Gangstas without shaking one’s head in amazement at the insanity of daily life at N.W.A.’s Ruthless Records—from the number of children and artists Eazy and Dre fathered to the Nation of Islam’s bizarre attempt to cure the former’s AIDS before his death in 1995 (a happening reported here in detail for the first time). While Westhoff started researching before he had a focus, the through-line eventually became obvious: Dr. Dre, born Andre Young, whose career as a party-rocking teenage DJ—and then later as the leading architect behind an evolving West Coast sound and the region’s chief rap impresario—transformed countless heavyweight careers.

With a guiding light on Dre, Westhoff says that his approach was notably different from the one he took with Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy, and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop. Whereas that book reads more like a travelogue (and hearkens to the cult immersive NOLA rap scene dispatch Tricksta by Nick Cohn) than, say, Brian Coleman’s comprehensive Check the Technique series, which lets the artists do most of the talking directly, Original Gangstas reads like classic investigative magazine journalism and stands alongside Check the Technique, Can’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Chang, and The Big Payback by Dan Charnas as a standard-bearer sure to age like a Dre track.

With the responsibility of turning an investigative eye on Ruthless Records and Death Row—the latter the comparably infamous imprint of iconic criminal boss Suge Knight, that fostered the massive careers of Snoop Dogg and Tupac—came the duty of attending to a series of unfortunate domestic assaults which took place throughout the halcyon years. It’s not a stretch to say that beating women is a major plotline in any story involving Dre; such behavior was so normalized among N.W.A. members, in fact, that one is left to question the intentions of the Straight Outta Compton screenwriters, or of any other biographer who masks these black eyes. One account by Westhoff, of a beating Dre gave then-TV host Dee Barnes at a club in West Hollywood, stands out among the most despicable: “He grabbed me by my hair, picked me up and started slamming me into a brick wall,” said Barnes, who is nearly a foot shorter than Dre and weighed about half as much. Dre’s bodyguard held back the crowd, she added in a statement. According to eyewitness accounts, Dre began kicking her and tried to push her down a flight of stairs. She fled to the bathroom, but Dre followed her in and began beating her more. (N.W.A. promoter) Doug Young said the room full of spectators watched and did nothing.”

In these respects, Original Gangstas is a grueling read—even for those who may be vaguely familiar with parts of the domestic side of this story, and especially for anyone who grew up hanging pictures of these guys on their walls, an experience that I personally share with Westhoff. (The Minnesota-bred author notes this in brief throughout the book, using his own impressions as a way to show the far-reaching impact of Compton rap.) But while atrocious acts against women—their victims almost always were women, one might acknowledge, as N.W.A.’s security handled the male threats—turn up on page after page, Westhoff doesn’t let those acts hijack the narrative. And why should they? This is, after all, the dirty version. Extensive scars considered, Dre himself should probably be happy with the book, since it proves him to be among the realest MCs ever, at least in that he apparently meant in earnest and delivered on the threats he issued against women on record.

As a critical addition to existing accounts of these episodes, Original Gangstas is a reliable and accessible historical document, from Westhoff’s diligence in finding sources who were difficult to track down—though N.W.A.’s former business manager, the recently deceased Jerry Heller, was subsequently ambushed by the paparazzi likes of TMZ, Westhoff believes theirs was Heller’s last substantial interview; as he writes, in their short time together in October 2014, the mogul was “alternatively calm and heated,” oscillating “between saying he doesn’t care what anyone says about him, and vehemently denying various allegations”—to his interviews with others who were more amenable, like J-Dee of Da Lench Mob, who is currently serving a substantial sentence for murder in the California Men’s Colony. In our chat, Westhoff said that coverage from Vibe magazine was particularly thorough, though he made sure to note that the publication, for reasons satisfactory or otherwise, drew criticism from some corners for fueling the violence that erupted between warring rap factions. Even with these many living documents to pluck from and fact-check, Westhoff managed to produce a seriously compelling page-turner. Never too far from his early music-critic roots, the author clearly knows his shit, which is more than can be said for most people writing about rap for national audiences. From his description of the frenzy over the 1988 release of Straight Outta Compton: “The album’s most memorable songs feature an assault of abrasive textures, marching drums, sample fragments, and break beats mined from Roadium swap meets. Straight Outta Compton’s bombastic sound matches its rhetoric. To hear it as a child of poverty was to nod in affirmation; to hear it as a person of privilege was to gasp in horror.”

On an important side note, underground heads should be happy to know that Westhoff, a longtime music scribe who has covered many facets of the genre, appropriately notes intersections between rap honchos and the subterranean element around them—from the involvement of Cube’s cousin Del tha Funkee Homosapien (his preferred spelling back then) with Da Lench Mob to the parallel rise of the Good Life Cafe and an alternative rhyme scene in Greater Los Angeles. That’s in addition to a range of cameos from peripheral players like DJ David Faustino (yes, Bud from Married With Children) to rappers who emerged as household names outside the Ruthless fold—like Everlast, whose former girlfriend, white female MC Tairrie B, Dre once punched in the face “the way a guy would hit another guy,” according to one witness.

Westhoff, who began working on Original Gangstas before Straight Outta Compton was announced, said that he and his publisher debated rushing up their drop date to align with the biopic. In the end, it wasn’t feasible, or, as the author now acknowledges, anywhere close to necessary. A proper published biographical account claws much closer to the core of any topic than could any feature film, and in this case, the difference isn’t simply in the errors and omissions of the N.W.A. flick, like having the group visit the White House (in reality, Eazy attended a George H.W. Bush fundraiser at a DC hotel), or showing them being arrested for performing “Fuck tha Police” in Detroit (they weren’t). Rather, in his intricate profile of these seminal gang-related performers, we are treated to the ugly truth. Considering that California gangsta rap, before all of the hype, was commonly called “reality rap” by its originators, there should be no higher aspiration for those attempting to document the backstory.

This piece originally appeared in DigBoston. Below: Author Ben Westhoff. Photo by Jay Senter Grey.

Original Gangstas: The Untold Story of Dr. Dre, Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Tupac Shakur, and the Birth of West Coast Rap

By Ben Westhoff

Hachette

432 pages, $28

Published in Literature

On March 26, 2016, Jim Harrison died at his home in Patagonia, Ariz., a final poem left unfinished on his desk.

Some writers leave too soon; others, like Harrison, depart when they’re good and ready. He had lived hard, first in Michigan and later in Montana, where his prodigious appetites combined with his love of hunting and fishing to create a persona both urbane and rugged—a sort of backwoods bon vivant. His face, rough-hewn and canny, was that of a man who had lived several lifetimes. “He was active and creative to the end, but it was time to go: No one was less-suited to assisted living,” his friend, the novelist Thomas McGuane, wrote in The New Yorker.

Although Harrison’s oeuvre encompassed screenplays, poetry, essays and food reviews—including an ode to a 37-course French lunch—he’s most renowned for his novellas. Harrison has been synonymous with the form since his 1979 masterpiece Legends of the Fall, a continent-spanning reflection on betrayal and revenge that paints a kill-or-be-killed portrait of the West. By comparison, Harrison’s last collection of novellas, The Ancient Minstrel, published just weeks before his death, has a narrower scope: It’s mostly preoccupied with pigs.

That Harrison would turn to pigs is fitting, given his own porcine qualities. This is not intended as an insult, for there’s much to admire about both pigs and Harrison: their happy hedonism, their keen intelligence, their enviable ability to be “utterly indulgent at the table.” The book’s first, and titular, novella finds Harrison—or rather his rueful, fictionalized stand-in—settled down at a Montana farm to write “a magnum version of A Thousand Acres,” sneak drinks behind the back of his sharp-eyed wife, and “fulfill his childhood dream of owning his own pig.” The gauzy plot wanders through memory and meditation, with occasional flashes of animal husbandry; it’s a pleasant and disorienting reading experience, akin to getting drunk in a field on an idle summer day. The sharpest characters are the pigs. One piglet, Marjorie, “collapsed against his body as if they were lovers. … She fluttered her eyes at him and he couldn’t help but wink.”

Anthropomorphic though Marjorie may be, pigs differ from humans in one important way: So far as we know, they can’t conceptualize their own death. Decline and demise, on the other hand, stalk Minstrel’s third and final novella, The Case of the Howling Buddhas. Although Buddhas is nominally about a Zen-like cult operating in Michigan, its real subject is Det. Sunderson, a recurring Harrison anti-hero, who, in this case, both encourages and laments the advances of a 15-year-old girl. When he’s not preoccupied with Barbara, Sunderson attempts to cope with his own mortality and decrepitude; he’s single, plagued with prostate discomfort, and, if his tryst is discovered, ticketed for incarceration. “The poignant fear was that if he went to prison at 66 years of age, he likely wouldn’t get out until age 76,” Harrison writes, “and by then, he’d probably be too weak to fish and wade swift rivers.” Lust in Harrison’s books is usually a joyous, worshipful affair; in Buddhas, however, Sunderson comes off as creepy and weak. The author’s predilection for pairing nubile Lolitas with dirty old men has never been his most appealing quality, but there’s no satisfaction in watching the noose close around the pedophile.

The best of Minstrel’s three novellas is the second, Eggs, which stars a lissome, brainy and precocious heroine named Catherine. (She’s cast from the same mold as Sarah, the star of Harrison’s 2009 novella The Farmer’s Daughter; Harrison has a knack for identifying successful archetypes.) Catherine’s saga resembles the globetrotting arc of Legends of the Fall: She spends her formative years in London during World War II with her grandparents, who live out the Blitz “in a state of relentless fear”; later, she returns to Montana to run a family farm, yearning for “the old Montana of her childhood before so many rich people moved west.” She prefers the company of chickens to men—more domestic animals!—but yearns for a baby. Her flock of hens, and their profligate egg-laying, reminds her of her childlessness. Like Harrison’s best work, Eggs effortlessly bridges decades; its delight lies in watching Catherine find, lose and find herself again in the comfort of her land. “It seemed to her that her life was accelerating in a direction she had chosen,” Harrison writes, “but at a speed she couldn’t quite emotionally encompass.”

The speed of life has now swept Jim Harrison away in its current; may we all face our ends so gracefully. Harrison is too introspective to avoid obsessing about death, but his joie de vivre is too great to permit him to wallow in it. In The Ancient Minstrel, melancholy is swiftly banished by gastronomy. “It didn’t work to try to write about sex, doom, death, time and the cosmos,” he opines, “when you were thinking about a massive plate of spaghetti and meatballs.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Ancient Minstrel

By Jim Harrison

Grove

272 pages, $25

Published in Literature

The Mexican-American border has inspired its own literary genre, unleashing a flood of poetry, reportage, nature writing, crime fiction, novels, essays and even coffee-table photo books. Together, words and pictures paint a sharp portrait of a landscape caught between delicate light and terrifying darkness.

Two recent books bring unique perspectives to this invisible slash across cultures, and to the dreams of the people who yearn to be on the other side of it.

Jason de León’s The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail is a disturbing book about an immense human tragedy. But somehow, it’s the pigs I can’t get out of my head—not just the pigs, actually, but the horrible reality of what they represent. De León buys a pig and hires someone to kill it. Shot in the head, the animal struggles mightily as the author rubs its belly, mumbling, “It’s OK. It’s OK.” The dead pig is then dressed in underwear, jeans, a T-shirt and tennis shoes, and dumped beneath a mesquite. The researchers step back to record, with scientific precision, exactly what happens to it over the next two weeks.

The pig represents the body of an undocumented immigrant, de León writes, part of an experiment to understand what happens to those who die and disappear in the Sonoran Desert. He repeats this violent process four more times and writes a scientific paper about it. The conclusion is stark and inevitable: The desert eats poor people. As director of the Undocumented Migration Project, de León is conducting a long-term study using the tools and methods of anthropology to understand undocumented migration between Mexico and the U.S.

A couple hundred thousand or more migrants are apprehended each year at the border. But some of those who cross into the U.S. perish in the desert thanks to “Prevention Through Deterrence,” a strategy in which the Border Patrol clamped down on major immigration corridors to force would-be crossers into parched and dangerous lands, deputizing nature as a tool of law enforcement and sidestepping any responsibility for what happens to people out there.

Between October 2010 and September 2014, the bodies of almost 3,000 dead migrants were recovered in Southern Arizona alone. Hundreds remain unidentified. Countless others vanish entirely, consumed and scattered by animals and the elements. Those who succeed are frequently scarred—physically as well as psychologically—by the experience. Most have been subjected to rape, robbery and other unimaginable forms of cruelty, violence and suffering on the journey—all in order to take dangerous, crappy jobs no one in this country wants.

De León uses science to expose this federal policy for what it is, “a killing-machine that simultaneously uses and hides behind the viciousness of the Sonoran Desert.” It has created a hugely profitable “border industrial complex” where everyone involved—lobbyists, contractors, law enforcement, private prisons, smugglers and vendors of “crossing supplies”—makes money, with the notable exception of the immigrants themselves.


A very different border tale unfolds in Linda Valdez’s thoughtful, important new memoir Crossing the Line: A Marriage Across Borders. She has written a love story about immigration, and it is a well-crafted antidote to de León’s border-induced despair.

Valdez was an asthmatic 11-year-old middle-class German-Irish girl from Ohio’s Rust Belt when her mother brought her to Tucson seeking a desert cure. After a bumpy transition to adulthood, Valdez became a newspaper reporter. A chance trip to Mexico after a boyfriend’s suicide resulted in a storybook romance when she met the man of her dreams, Sixto Valdez.

They could not have come from more different backgrounds. He grew up in a house made of cactus ribs, mud and corrugated tin in Sinaloa. He was kind, decent, a rock-solid partner. But as a poor Mexican man, he couldn’t get a visa. So one day in 1988, he simply popped through a hole in the fence and safely reached the other side. It was, of course, a very different border in those days than the one so painfully documented in de León’s book.

Later, after Sixto finally received his papers, the couple returned to Sinaloa to visit his family. Valdez describes a luminous day at the beach: “Right now, in the water, in the sun, there was only this moment—and it would remain warm and joyful years later, even in the dark of winter, even when getting along was hard work instead of child’s play.

“We sparkled in the water. Sea jewels.”

The book describes Sixto’s crossing, their marriage, their families, the challenges of dealing with immigration bureaucracy and how they created a happy bicultural life together on both sides of the border. Sixto eventually earned a master’s degree and became a teacher.

Valdez, now an editorial writer for the Arizona Republic and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, has written a humane cross-cultural odyssey of love, family, commitment and devotion that revels in the tenacity of the human spirit.

These books show us two opposing realities of the border: Where Valdez celebrates life, de León’s work is mired in death. He graphically bears witness that not everyone makes it, and that even for those who do, the fairy-tale ending all too often is a desert mirage.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

The Land of Open Graves: Living and Dying on the Migrant Trail

By Jason de León

University of California Press

384 pages, $29.95


Crossing the Line: A Marriage Across Borders

By Linda Valdez

Texas Christian University Press

192 pages, $22.95

Published in Literature

It’s hard to believe that more than 25 years have passed since Western writer and fierce conservationist Edward Abbey died, on March 14, 1989. Several recent books take a clear look at his legacy, and though all three emphasize the continued relevance of Abbey’s environmental ideas, none of them shy away from acknowledging his difficult views on other topics—particularly women and minorities.

All the Wild That Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West, by essayist David Gessner, is an effective combination of travelogue, biography and memoir. The author examines the work of these two influential writers in an attempt to imagine what they might have to say to Westerners today, when fracking, fire and climate change increasingly pose risks to the landscapes they loved.

Gessner drives from his own home in North Carolina to places that were formative to both authors’ lives—from Home, Penn., where Abbey was raised, and Arches National Park, where he worked a season as a ranger, to Stegner’s childhood home in Canada and his father’s grave in Utah. Gessner concludes that Stegner’s realism and concern for sharing resources are even more important today, while Abbey’s influence continues to endure: “Because Abbey is no longer just a writer whose books you read; he is a literary cult figure who has followers.” Abbey’s monkey-wrenching philosophy still inspires environmental activists, and Gessner suggests that if the author were alive today, he’d likely be in jail for ecoterrorism.

Sean Prentiss’ debut, Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave, is the most personal of the three books. Although all of them seek to decipher the man and the icon, Prentiss’ memoir looks to Abbey’s life and writings for posthumous advice—not just on how to save the environment, but on how to find a life that is wild and meaningful.

Prentiss begins the book in a personal slump, stuck in a town and a job that don’t suit him, and he spends the next two years visiting locations where Abbey lived, from Hoboken, N.J., to Moab, Utah. Prentiss doesn’t shield us from Abbey’s controversial opinions on immigration, but contends that Abbey was chiefly concerned with population growth, and today might take a more global perspective on the issue. Like Gessner, he interviews several of Abbey’s friends, including Doug Peacock, the inspiration for George Washington Hayduke, and Ken Sleight, the model for the character Seldom Seen Smith. He questions them as to whether Abbey was an alcoholic. They say no, but the doctors Prentiss interviews conclude that the writer’s drinking likely hastened his death, given his symptoms. The book culminates with Prentiss’ quest to find Abbey’s hidden desert grave, and his success provides one of the book’s most poignant passages. When they find it, the friend who accompanies him says, “This is the grave of someone’s daddy. It’s almost too powerful to bear.” Prentiss depicts an author and personality of “conflicting absolutes” and ultimately decides that Abbey would urge him to move back to the mountains—to a place that feels like home.

Abbey in America: A Philosopher’s Legacy in a New Century, an anthology of pieces by a variety of essayists, conservationists and friends, also considers Abbey’s writing and life, and the way his ideas intersect with contemporary issues like terrorism and immigration. John A. Murray’s recollection of storytelling with Hunter S. Thompson in a bar in Aspen, and Charles Bowden’s essay on immigration are perhaps the most vivid essays, but many of them reveal Abbey’s most intimate moments by letting us in on the details of his death and burial, or showing us aspects of the man not disclosed in his writing. In “Abbey’s Secret,” the author talks to Mark Klett, the photographer who accompanied Abbey on an assignment for Condé Nast Traveler. Klett reveals an Abbey who was more reserved than his authorial persona would indicate: “In Grand Gulch, Klett got to know this more moderate, three-dimensional man behind the brash rhetoric and the Cactus Ed caricature.”

In an age when climate change is growing ever more severe while corporate interests gain increasing power, Abbey’s activist spirit and his vision of a land untouched by development remain vital. These books prove that, for all the writer’s human flaws, his legacy will endure.

This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

All the Wild that Remains: Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner, and the American West

By David Gessner

W.W. Norton and Company

368 pages, $16.95

Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave

By Sean Prentiss

University of New Mexico

240 pages, $21.95

Abbey in America: A Philosopher’s Legacy in a New Century

Edited by John A. Murray

University of New Mexico

232 pages, $39.95

Published in Literature

“A helluva place to lose a cow,” Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce allegedly quipped about the Southern Utah scarp of hoodoos that still bears his name. Well beyond cattle, smart people with maps and survival gear have vanished into the folds of the Colorado Plateau’s convoluted topography.

Dreamers and adventurers have long been drawn to the region, for various reasons. Spanish explorer Garcia López de Cárdenas first peered into the Grand Canyon while chasing the Seven Cities of Gold; early trappers like Antoine Robidoux sought wealth of the furry kind; and Brigham Young spied his God’s Promised Land. In 1869, John Wesley Powell came through, but three crew members left before the expedition’s end, only to be killed by Mormons, or perhaps Paiutes—nobody knows for sure. To this day, spellbound wanderers seek out these canyons; some never leave, ultimately adding their bones to those already enriching the barren ground.

Among the more famous missing are Glen and Bessie Hyde, Jazz Age honeymooners who hoped to cash in by becoming the first couple to float through the Grand Canyon. (Brad Dimock deftly speculated about their end in Sunk Without a Sound.) A few other mysteries were ultimately solved: Twenty-five years after he flipped his boat in the Grand Canyon’s 24.5-Mile Rapid at age 80, Colorado River legend Bert Loper’s remains showed up on a beach at Cardenas Creek.

The latest in this literature of the Colorado Plateau as Bermuda Triangle is The Disappearances by Scott Thybony, former Grand Canyon river guide and archaeologist. “The ratio between wild and tame has shifted,” he writes, “but some of us still find ways of getting into trouble.”

Interspersed with boots-on-the-ground research that took Thybony from Texas to southern Utah, the book probes the fate of three of those who got into trouble during the 1930s: Lucile Garrett, a woodcutter’s daughter from Oklahoma, who fled west with the fugitive who murdered her father and lived with the killer in an isolated canyon along the San Juan River; Dan Thrapp, a 21-year-old paleontologist on leave from the American Museum of Natural History, who disappeared on his search for undiscovered cliff dwellings in Dark Canyon near Blanding, Utah—“Indian Legends Lured Lost Man,” one Salt Lake Tribune headline shouted; and the iconic Everett Ruess, a footloose, romantic artist from California who vanished in the Escalante region in 1934. His final tracks led into Davis Gulch, where only his pack burros, a bridle and graffiti spelling out NEMO were found. Some sleuths think that cattle-rustlers or Indians murdered the youth and hid the body (W.L. Rusho, The Mystery of Everett Ruess; David Roberts, Finding Everett Ruess), but others surmise he staged his own disappearance to live incognito on the reservation with a Navajo wife.

“In a country where canyons lie sunk within canyons and tiers of cliffs stack one on top of another, the mysteries come layered,” Thybony writes, and the three stories he traces take some unexpected turns. According to his findings, Ruess fell into a rock crevice while exploring near an alcove campsite, and his decomposing body washed down Davis Gulch with the monsoons. Thybony investigates the “murders and even the madness” his protagonists suffered as a way to grasp “the wonder and dread they had experienced in a place so different from any they had known before.”

Dark tales intrigue this writer, who also has long suspected that Ambrose Bierce, supposedly shot in Pancho Villa’s revolution, took his own life somewhere in the Grand Canyon.

Although that theory remains unproven, the riddle of one modern-day disappearance was recently solved. In 2010, a man wounded a Utah state park ranger at a trailhead near Moab and then fled into the sandstone void. Police combed the area, to no avail. But in late December 2015, a local college student and his teenage brother—sons of a Moab police detective who’d participated in the 2010 search—found Lance Leeroy Arellano’s bones and pistol in a cave near town, and thereby earned a $30,000 reward.

Plenty of other canyon country mysteries still remain to rivet our imagination. Our need for the unknown is just one more reason to preserve what Thybony calls “big reaches of distance lying close to the human heart.” Weaned on Hollywood fare, we need our Western folk heroes—like Hayduke or the Lone Ranger—to keep riding forever, into the sunset.

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

The Disappearances: A Story of Exploration, Murder, and Mystery in the American West

By Scott Thybony

University of Utah

288 pages, $24.95

Published in Literature

Photographs in the new book To See Them Run offer a glimpse into the Great Plains culture around coyote coursing—a sport that involves athletic hounds trained to run down coyotes.

The book, along with images by Scott Squire, includes vignettes of the collection’s main characters by writer Eric Eliason.

The sport, writes Eliason, is “an uncommercialized and never-before-studied vernacular tradition.” Although coyote hunting is widespread across the country, coursing, a subset of hunting, is relatively uncommon.

Many states allow coursing and offer bounties—in Utah, it’s $50—for each coyote carcass. Coyote-hunting contests are held in several Western states, including New Mexico, Idaho and Montana. In 2014, California became the first state to ban coyote-killing contests, which sometimes includes coursing.

Opponents of coursing say the practice perpetuates unnecessary cruelty and wildlife abuse and isn’t effective in population control. Yet proponents of the sport say it helps tamp down coyote populations and protect livestock. Available science is spotty and backs up neither in a convincing way, as High Country News reported in a February 2016 story on Wildlife Services, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In To See Them Run, no photo shows the end of the hunt, when the greyhounds catch their prey, side-stepping the controversy entirely. In the end, that’s what is most unsettling about Eliason’s book, which keeps the gore of an otherwise bloody sport out of view.

The book provides a unique perspective on the culture to a familiar reader, but for the reader who comes to Eliason’s collection to better understand the sport, it will leave them wanting.

This review originally occurred in High Country News.

To See Them Run: Great Plains Coyote Coursing

By Eric A. Eliason

University Press of Mississippi

112 pages, $40

Published in Literature

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