Coddling the Untalented: Desert Gothic by Don Waters

desertgothicIn late summer, an editor at a southern Colorado-based bi-weekly magazine asked me to review a slim volume of stories by a writer who had lately been awarded the Iowa Prize for short fiction. I’m always slightly leery about contemporary fiction; I’d rather read non-fiction, and I’m of the opinion that good fiction writing ended with the death of Flannery O’Connor. How I would love to be proven wrong. Occasionally, a novel surfaces that I enjoy: Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Susan Sontag’s In America, and (going further back, to the 80s) Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s Disturbances in the Field. Short fiction, though, is another matter. Much of what’s published in that realm I find oppressively self-indulgent (i.e., Sherman Alexie) or merely feeble, perhaps engaging for a page or two at best. Nonetheless, I decided to take a crack at the proposed book, Desert Gothic. Even if I disliked the stories, which, as it turns out, I did, I welcomed the exercise. Exercise, I say, because this particular magazine forbids its book reviewers to pan anything. And while I would never praise a book (or a movie) that hasn’t earned the accolades, it’s a considerable challenge, much like working a crossword puzzle, to write, so to speak, between the lines—to draw attention to what minor merit a book may have, yet sculpt the piece in such a way that any reader with taste would immediately spot the work in question as a bad egg. Conversely, readers who love trash would have a “Eureka!” moment of an entirely different sort.

The assigning editor absolutely hated what I gave her. Her point of contention was that my review in no manner resembled the advance blurbs mimeographed by the book’s publisher, the University of Iowa Press. The implication: criticism should be an extension of, thus scarcely distinguishable from, PR machinery. And what encomiums of faxed-in favors from the author’s friends had the publicist diligently copied and pasted: “You’ll want to own a first edition,” gushes John McNally, much in the style of a carnival barker, “It will only go up in value as Don Waters’s career soars. He’s the real deal.” The other quotes, all from minor novelists, none from critics, were less fulsome than McNally’s, but all of them, however obliquely, pointed up to the same thing: that just about anyone who has made the rounds at so-called writers’ colonies can be given enough false encouragement not to let an almost complete lack of anything to say preclude a career as a writer. And that if an especially slick young person peddles repetitive, misogynist, self-consciously seedy tripe, why surely somebody somewhere will bestow An Award, A Prize of some kind to signify that the writer has met and mastered the Committee.

Instead of my choice of carrots, the editor offered me a choice of sticks: Fabricate admiration for this unsavory little tome or take a kill fee. I took the kill fee. Below is the objectionable, offending truth. – NPT (November 11, 2007)

In “What to Do with the Dead,” the story that leads off Don Waters’ collection Desert Gothic, the author shows us he’s capable of thinking as a painter. Through his first-person narrator, Julian, a New York artist turned Nevada crematorium worker, Waters has an eye for perspective that convinces: “Desert defined the limits of civilized space. It offered an unobtrusive canvas in which everyday matter diminished or enlarged in proportion to the day’s light.” From the ashes of Julian’s new profession, there’s also this: “In a few short months my hobby had transformed the vault into a lush underground island. I’d decorated nearly half of the indigent urns with a single impressionistic detail…an aspen leaf, a rivulet, green patches of forest.”

Significantly, he’s the only one of Waters’ protagonists engaged in the act of creating something; the others are destroyers, in one manner or another. Waters’ leading men are ruled by predilections for dirty-mindedness and mean-spiritedness, such as the anonymous dealer in “Mr. Epstein and the Dealer,” a bilious, inarticulate grunt, redeemed only by his willingness to procure inexpensive Mexican pharmaceuticals for underinsured Tucson senior citizens once they can no longer afford their prescriptions. Granted, it’s daring for Waters to situate a contemptible clod at the center of a delicate topic, and even in the midst of the resulting dissonance, Waters will land a well-placed non sequitur (a barrio druggist who reads Artforum) that cannot help but elicit a smile.

Waters’ characters tend to smoke heavily. Eschewing dainty “lights,” these manly men prefer to suck down death in the form of unfiltered Camels or Marlboro reds. Their nicotine habit lends a decidedly unwholesome dynamic to most of these stories, particularly to “Mineral and Steel,” which features a chain-smoking, blue-collar step-dad versus his prissily non-smoking, would-be novelist adult stepson (named Leslie), as they ride around in the ash-filled cabin of the step-dad’s pick-up truck, circling parking lots in search of stolen titanium. Their adventures read like homoerotic fantasies that might have been conceived by a necrophiliac. (I kept waiting for the stepson’s resolve to wither; it never quite does.)

Yet for all that, Waters will arise, as a phoenix from the cigarette butts, to an apt juxtaposition of literary daydreaming with nature writing. Leslie’s recollection of mountain leaves resembling sunlit silver dollars segues to his musing on Mark Twain (his idol) dodging a duel in Virginia City, Nevada—a self-testament to a young man’s hunger for forging his own myths.

September 2007