A New Voice of the Southwest

But that’s where the shape-shifting and color-changing kick in. That said, they do help sustain a tone of yearning and an engagement with deep histories, a hope for some sort of redemption amid all that tough environment. A kind of Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, maybe. How I would love to have Joshua Wheeler contemplate and comment on the notion of DeVoto as a progenitor of Acid West. From its title to the glare of its cover art, Acid West is a fluorescent collection of nonfiction essays. This is the SNM of Roswell and space aliens, and of evil deeds done by those who, depraved and desperate, might as well have come from outer space. This is the SNM of mining and ranching and itinerant wanderings across the centuries: missionaries, conquistadors, Apaches, railroad workers, speculators, UFO chasers. Wheeler’s book moves fast — it is made up of more than a dozen long-form essays — but we’d be missing a big facet of its contribution if we consign it to the genre of hipster MFA reportage. Champion of public lands, crusading historian of the West, DeVoto wrote many important pieces on conservation and on Western history and culture, most of them issuing from his perch in Harper’s “Easy Chair” (a column he wrote monthly for 20 years). This is the SNM of atomic tests and atomic science, of radioactive wounds deep in living things. Like Thompson, Wheeler knows that the West, and perhaps especially this lower half of New Mexico, is good to think with. ¤
William Deverell is director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West and professor of history at the University of Southern California. And this is some kind of book. It goes without saying that the going gets weird at times. “Tell the ghost story, college boy,” Wheeler’s summertime construction mates insist. Joshua Wheeler says he had to move away in order to see his home in a way intriguing or confusing enough to want to write about, as both native and expat (he teaches writing now at LSU). This is home to the town once known as Hot Springs, which — with a bold, odd stroke — voted to change its name in 1950 to match a well-known radio program called Truth or Consequences. Thompson, the ghost of Edward Abbey pops up, and Acid West suddenly evokes Desert Solitaire (1968) and Confessions of a Barbarian (1986), especially in its insistence on the relationship between observation and stewardship — of the land and its human and nonhuman inhabitants. What we get in this, his first book, is a brilliant portrait of a place and a people, a millennial’s travelogue written with enviable verve and erudition. They seem unnecessary, a note of unsubtlety in an otherwise subtle, supple book. There’s a reason the book begins at the edge of Purgatory (Canyon), after all. Joshua Wheeler speaks the language. Or, to be truer to the book’s setting, this is a New Mexico whiptail of a book. No, the book goes deeper than that. A brilliant thinker and stylist, DeVoto wrote a different kind of exploration narrative, illuminating place and highlighting environmental vulnerabilities. Marvelous, too, is whiptail reproduction. The place is today colloquially known as T or C. The author’s grandmother pauses while shelling pecans to ask her silver-tongued grandson to give her eulogy when she’s gone, paying a bribe by way of the $20 bill rubber-banded tight around the obituary she’s already written. That name changed the day he stood beside the town’s water ditch “and held his straight razor for a long moment in his hands,” before adding his own blood to the Alamogordo irrigation system. This is an auspicious debut by a new voice of the American Southwest. Wheeler is a new Joshua guiding us through a different Canaan, but one no less shot through by belief and ritual, no less shaped by fear and power. At White Sands National Monument, just outside Alamogordo, whiptails have changed their color in the blink of an evolutionary eye. One more frame suggests itself as a way to approach this book: the theme of civil religion. A fascination with Mark Twain becomes a way to write about memory, consciousness, purpose, existentialism. It shimmers with the characters, history, and culture of Southern New Mexico, from whence its author hails. It is an amazing adaptation. Explain why the water is haunted and one has to drink it slowly or go insane. This is Southern New Mexico: SNM to those who love and hate it, those who are formed, scarred, and made of and by it. Thompson, as does the rapid-fire prose, the ear for quirky dialogue, the strangeness of a landscape sore and battered. Video games and video-gamers mesh with space fanatics or extreme-sports daredevils strapped to this or that gravity-busting contraption. It’s clear that Wheeler has thought long and hard about the truth and consequences of the past. The eccentric stories just sit there, in the desert, in high relief, almost as if waiting for a writer as talented as this one. The title invites comparison with Hunter S. Another prominent influence on these essays, I would argue, is Bernard DeVoto. Generally Christian, with other traditions sprinkled in, this devotional subtext helps move these essays along, even as the people within them pause to wonder, worry, and pray. It is some kind of place. Once darker, they have lightened and whitened in a mere 10,000 years — as long as the sand dunes have been piling up — so as to better escape sharp-eyed predators. I must admit that I did not much like the chapter-by-chapter epigraphic flourishes that put a religious stamp on things — e.g., “in the year of our Lord 2014-15,” or some such. Joshua Wheeler has written a book worth reading more than once, a book that makes me very much want to read his next one. But New Mexico invites digression, expects it, even demands it. Whiptails are an all-female reptile clan: they reproduce by parthenogenesis. Reality is constantly dissected, faceted, questioned via the lives and deaths of SNM natives and passers-through. Remind people of this and that, she insists, remind them “how hard I worked to keep Alamogordo beautiful.” She does this every few months, “sweetening the pot year after decaying year because the one thing she knows for sure is that she wants the decay edited out.” SNM is a land of the quick and the dead, and we hear from them all in this sweet homily of a book. We drift south across the border, near Juárez, to an asylum made of cinder blocks that is presided over a man named El Pastor. Wheeler knows when to play the first-person card of the old New Journalism, and he knows when to back off. The official reptile of New Mexico, the whiptail lizard is a fascinating creature. This is the SNM of people who just scrape by day after day after day. Acid West is peppered with faith, the yen and the comfort of it. All places have their dialects and linguistic codes, their insider acronyms and shorthand. For just as we begin to peg this book as a rerun of Hunter S. He’s very good at scene-setting, which makes him very good at history-telling. Wheeler is inventive in his jumping-off points, taking up topics that become doors to something else without hitch or hiccup. Mark Twain shares pages with John Wayne, and both make way for various members of the author’s family, for his ancestors, friends, and ex-girlfriends, as well as for an array of killers and dreamers, winners, losers, and some that just never had much of a chance. This debut collection is a powerful statement about home and homecoming, made all the more impressive when home is half of a big state. This is not foodie New Mexico, not Ansel Adams’s New Mexico, or Georgia O’Keeffe’s, or Mabel Dodge Luhan’s. “He became El Pastor by trying to kill one,” Wheeler laconically observes. As the 19th-century gave way to the 20th, a man named Jim Green pulled a water wagon through Alamogordo, the barrels spraying water onto the streets and the kids; thus did he make a name for himself. By our contemporary reckoning, DeVoto fell hard for the triumphalist romance of western expansion across his beloved Rockies, but there’s so much more to his work than that imperialist echo. Because they engage in mating rituals with one another as a way to stimulate ovulation, whiptails have been referred to as the “leaping lesbian lizards.”
I digress. The author carried me along with his eye and his prose, carried me to the people, the places, the sunlight, the history, the pain, the crimes, the oddities, and the grace. JULY 23, 2018
ACID WEST IS a bit of a chameleon: it changes its color and character from one sort of book to another, depending on how one encounters it.