A collection of essays set in the deserts of the southwestern United States and northwestern Mexico.
When he hits the mark, there are few living writers more at home in desert country than Berger (The End of the Sherry, 2014, etc.), at least since the passing of Edward Abbey and Charles Bowden. Hit the mark he does here, and often, as with a longish early essay on the memories shaped by arriving in Phoenix at the age of 8, at the very beginning of the postwar boom, and experiencing over the years the profound changes that have taken place there—changes that have played out in the big picture but also in the vegetation around his family home, marked by the arrival of Audubon’s warblers in the metropolis, pecking away at the bottom of drained irrigation canals. The author’s affectionate portrait of one of the strangely brilliant hermits that the desert seems to breed—this one a fellow who somehow had divined the presence of mountains on Venus before NASA got there—is a hallmark of generously diplomatic writing. Sure, the guy was a little sundazed, but he was on to something, too: “Slight, bespectacled, pencil and Kleenex stuck in his pocket, jeans rolled over his boots, he looked like a professor gone to seed.” At times, however, Berger strives a little too hard for literary effect, as when he writes of an unfortunately pruned desert willow, “it looked like an angst-ridden prop from Waiting for Godot,” and when he opines that Spanish is “a language raucous as the desert birds,” which takes some of the fine polish off an otherwise unobjectionable piece in which Edna St. Vincent Millay and Willa Cather figure. Throughout, however, one gets the sense that Berger would be a welcome presence at a desert campfire, spinning sometimes-improbable but well-formed tales.
Abbey and Bowden did it better, but many of Berger’s essays in this loose-knit collection are pleasures to read.