It’s hard to hide from the news these days, even in the pages of a book. Buffalo Cactus, a collection of 21 recent stories with Western settings, delves into hot-button issues such as immigration, addiction and, inadvertently, the #MeToo movement: It features one story by disgraced author Ron Carlson, who resigned from UC Irvine in August 2018 (five months after Buffalo Cactus was published), following allegations of sexual misconduct.
Aside from the Carlson story, which the reader can easily ignore, Buffalo Cactus offers a chance to move past the stark headlines and discover the nuanced human stories that underlie them. Alberto Álvaro Ríos’ “Ten Seconds in Two Lives” opens the collection with the affecting, fable-like tale of Julio and Marta, two legal immigrants from Mexico—young, in love and struggling financially as they start out their new lives together. One day, Julio unwittingly becomes involved in a drug deal, earning $200. In the end, crossing the U.S.-Mexico border had not been nearly as momentous as the couple expected, but this transaction, Julio thought, “felt like the moment, the thing he always thought he would feel, the line, the crossing over.”
Many stories share this focus on people eking out a living on the margins of society. In Judy Troy’s “Lugar Tranquilo,” two elderly widows living in a mobile-home retirement community in Santa Fe become friends. Louise’s late husband’s gambling left her nearly penniless, but she cheerfully supports herself with a job at a hotel. “A job took you out of yourself and into the drama of the world,” she thinks. When a few mistakes convince her manager she’s too old to work, she must depend on the kindness of her neighbor.
Victor Lodato’s heart-rending story “Jack, July” captures the hopeless loop of meth addiction as a young man makes his way down Speedway Boulevard in Tucson on a blistering day, seeking drugs, shelter and love. Through quirky, piercing details, Lodato brings us into Jack’s mind, offering insight into the experience of meth addiction: “People going fast rearranged the furniture, or crawled around looking for carpet crumbs. Anything that used your hands, which, compelled by the imaginative fervor of your mind, became tools in a breathless campaign to change the shape of the world.”
Las Vegas appears in all its seedy glory in Robert Rosenberg’s “Circus Circus,” where a mother embarks on a frantic quest to find her 4-year-old daughter at a dilapidated casino after her estranged husband, a chronic gambler, loses her there. Connie worked at the cashier’s cage at a casino and had always told herself not to succumb to gamblers’ advances: “I knew I looked prettier on their lucky nights.” But Connie let her guard down once, a misstep that results in a child and marriage to an unreliable man. As their tragicomic search unfolds, Connie realizes the disappearance has been a setup—her husband’s way of forcing her to relieve him of parenting responsibilities.
Another Southwestern woman facing the prospect of single motherhood animates Kirstin Valdez Quade’s masterful “Ordinary Sins.” Crystal is unmarried, pregnant with twins and working in the office of a Catholic church in Santa Fe. Although she has visibly flouted her church’s rules, her stability and compassion keeps it running despite its clashing priests: a fragile but beloved recovering alcoholic and a by-the-book Nigerian “horrified by her messy fecundity” whose stentorian homilies alienate his parishioners.
The lives of some of the West’s essential workers—seasonal guides to the region’s outdoor attractions—are the focus of Corey Campbell’s “Ocean-Friendly Cuisine.” The narrator, Katherine, is part of a two-woman team leading a foreign tour group on a bus through Arches and the Grand Canyon. This peripatetic job suits Katherine, who, in the wake of her mother’s death, “quit marriage and my nursing program and found this desert,” she explains, deriving solace from drifting. Still, she can’t help but seek connection with an appealing widower from Croatia.
A quest for connection unites all these stories thematically, even if many of their characters choose to live in the West precisely because of the solitude its wide-open landscape offers. From an itinerant adjunct professor in Las Cruces in Robin Romm’s “Adulthood,” who fails to resist the comforts of a less-than-ideal relationship, to an older woman in Sierra Bellows’ title story, who tolerates—with disastrous results—her late-in-life paramour’s desire to keep a buffalo calf in his suburban Arizona neighborhood, these characters’ hearts keep getting them into trouble.
But as much as their yearning for one another is the source of many of their failures, their inextinguishable love is, in the end, their triumph.
This piece originally was published in High Country News.
Buffalo Cactus and Other New Stories From the Southwest
Edited by D. Seth Horton and Brett Garcia Myhren
University of New Mexico
296 pages, $24.95