Ambitious, vibrant true-crime narrative from the dangerous deserts of Southern California.
Stillman (Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, 2008, etc.) seizes on the too-common flashpoint of a police officer’s murder by a marginalized individual to examine larger social changes, embodied by the unusual locale of the Mojave Desert. In 2003, desert hermit Donald Kueck shot Deputy Sheriff Steve Sorensen after a brief confrontation on Kueck’s property. The ensuing weeklong manhunt was one of the largest law enforcement operations in recent history, involving local, state and federal agencies determined to bring Kueck to justice, lest he set an example for the desert’s “eccentrics, ex-felons, [and] fugitives.” Stillman intersperses this narrative of pursuit with chapters that offer a panoramic examination of tangential elements of the story, and this approach pays off in providing a thorough consideration of a place and character set that could be easily caricatured. One sad thread involves Kueck’s son, a doomed punk rocker representative of a larger population of neglected youth in California’s hardscrabble “Inland Empire.” Kueck comes off as a menacing and complex figure, a struggling, antisocial dropout who was nonetheless well read, skilled and capable of kindness to others. Sorensen gave up a stereotypical “surfer” adolescence for military and law enforcement service; he’d partnered with a few established residents in the rural desert community to push back against the entropy and violence that ultimately claimed him. Stillman’s prose can become heated—the deputy “was blazing a path behind a badge and a wall of will”—but she does an admirable job building a full portrait of this beleaguered landscape by looking at individual characters, including Sorensen’s aggrieved fellow officers and the eccentric ruffians who compose the hermit and punk subcultures, which Kueck and his son embodied. The result is lyrical and intense, if slightly unwieldy, with aspirations that suggest influences including Joan Didion, Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy.
A dynamic synthesis of Western saga, true-crime thriller and California-based transformation narrative.