Stanley Crawford defies most of the stereotypes of a “Western American writer.”
The Dixon, N.M.-based author is more likely to wear sandals than cowboy boots. He owns a pickup truck, but his automotive passion is for working on impractical yet dapper vintage European cars; his most recent project was the restoration of a 1984 Citroen Deux Chevaux. His latest aspiration is to compete in the 2018 Brompton World Championship, a decorous folding-bike race held every summer in St. James’ Park, in London, at which gentlemen are required to wear a jacket, shirt and tie.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the glee he takes in flouting the usual image of a Western writer, Crawford has earned a reputation as one of the most original and incisive authors writing about the region today. His memoirs Mayordomo and A Garlic Testament are celebrated for their droll yet humane reflections on how their author’s quixotic notions of the independence involved in a part-time agricultural career were upended by the complex reality he encountered—the communal modes of life and farming still practiced in his largely Hispanic community. But Crawford stayed on and adapted, and he has written and farmed in Dixon for nearly five decades now.
His most recent novel, Village, chronicles a day in the life of San Marcos, a fictional village that resonates with Dixon as surely as Thomas McGuane’s creation “Deadrock” echoes the real town of Livingston, Mont.
Village marks a departure in Crawford’s career as a novelist. Eclectic in theme, style and setting, Crawford’s first eight novels deliver intimate portraits of a series of doomed but lovable misfits as they try to negotiate a space for themselves in a world that refuses to conform to their vision. With Village, Crawford weaves the bifurcated themes of his fiction and nonfiction into a quiet masterpiece.
The story of San Marcos is narrated by a cast of dysfunctional loners: a Chicano postmaster intent on sabotaging the employer he regards as a hostile occupying power; an Anglo toymaker who has been trying to eke out an existence without paying taxes (or even having a Social Security card) following his failure as a 1960s radical; and a ne’er-do-well with an almost erotic desire to be in car accidents, among others. Haunted by violent histories and troubled by visions of future apocalypse, these characters nevertheless manage to carve out an anarchic communal life in the present.
Northern New Mexico is a place with a palpable divide between recent Anglo interlopers and the Chicana/o and Indigenous inhabitants who preceded them, and Village pulls no punches in exploring that rift.
“Part of living in a multicultural society is the necessity of imagining who your neighbors are,” Crawford told me, acknowledging the risks inherent in the attempt. In taking those imaginative risks, and narrating the inner lives of his Chicana/o characters, Crawford tells a story that confronts the ongoing histories that divide us without regarding them as insurmountable.
The thread that literally and figuratively connects the lives of these characters is the Acequia de los Hermanos, the Spanish-era irrigation ditch that makes life in San Marcos possible while serving as its most reliable source of anxiety and strife. Over the course of the spring day narrated in the novel, the acequia is nursed back to life for the season by Lázaro Quintana, the aging mayordomo who oversees its maintenance and operation.
As Lázaro coaxes the water downstream—clearing errant roots, beaver falls and human detritus—some local evangelicals interrupt his work. These proselytizers paint a lurid picture of the disasters occurring in the world, insisting that they foretell the end times. Pondering these calamities, Lázaro silently concludes, “They were probably happening … because la gente had stopped taking care of their gardens.”
This matter-of-fact response to apocalyptic thinking carries a lesson in its apparent non-sequitur. “Anglos who move here have to learn something,” says Crawford, adding wryly, “though some don’t.”
The “something” that must be learned is perhaps what Lázaro has to teach: that we can only hope to survive the calamities of our history and future if we attend to the often unseen and unpaid labor we do for each other. The chores that provide a village with water, the care of our elders and children, our devotion to small things, vital and beautiful, like gardens—this is the work necessary to build and maintain a community that might endure.
When the sun sets on San Marcos at the conclusion of Village, nothing has really been settled; we are left with neither a happy ending nor a tragic but dramatically satisfying conclusion. Crawford is not a writer who peddles easy fixes, either for his village or the world beyond. Instead, he provides us with something far more valuable: the humor and grace to face the absurdities and catastrophes of a new day with the knowledge that we do not face them alone.
Alex Trimble Young is a scholar of American literature and culture. He teaches in the Honors College at Arizona State University. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.
By Stanley Crawford
Leaf Storm Press
256 pages, $26