A Basque novelist takes a detour in Reno and contemplates his Spanish heritage alongside the American desert landscape.
This semiautobiographical novel by Atxaga (Seven Houses in France, 2011) opens with a writer not unlike Atxaga himself arriving with his wife and two daughters for a stint as a writer-in-residence in Reno, a magnet for Basque migrants and home to a Basque studies department at the University of Nevada. Writing in the form of a diary interspersed with longer personal essays, the narrator offers some fish-out-of-water descriptions of life in America: his kids doing active-shooter drills in school, campaign visits from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (the novel is set in 2007 and 2008), and (a particular fixation) the ignorance or blithe indifference of his neighbors to news about a serial rapist in the area. But nobody would confuse Atxaga for de Tocqueville, disinclined as he is to broad cultural analysis and prone as he is to digress. The story includes riffs on famous Basque figures like boxer Paulino Uzcudun, who trained in Nevada before a bout with Max Baer, the death of a mentally ill cousin, and a trip to Italy. From incident to incident, Atxaga’s storytelling can be engaging, shifting from highly detailed set pieces about funeral processions and typefaces to travelogues of road trips to San Francisco and through barren desert to dreamscapes (he depicts a particularly lively one involving a dumping ground for metaphors). But the novel overall is effectively plotless and hence static-feeling; despite Atxaga’s efforts to use the news stories about the rapist and disappeared adventurer Steve Fossett as a frame, the book mostly meanders.
Atxaga has taken in a lot about the peculiarities of desert living, but he’s only half-heartedly attempted to deliver a full-bodied work of fiction about it.