A collection of essays on life in the unenchanting part of the Land of Enchantment.
There’s not much for young folks to do in the Tularosa Basin, a swath of the brown land of what Wheeler (Creative Writing/LSU) calls SNM—Southern New Mexico, that is, which is far from the glamorous climes of Taos and Santa Fe: “There is no easy way to explain that here in the underbelly, south of the 34th parallel, which cuts the state in half, things are different.” You can take drugs or go four-wheeling or go looking for UFOs or play video games—and be repaid by the video game company’s efforts to dump waste in your backyard, a story that rivals the tale of Karen Silkwood in circumstantial lethality if not toxicity. At their best, Wheeler’s essays limn this American outback and its unsettled and sometimes-unsettling ways: “Momma is at the hospital, getting her broken blood fixed again. We’re twelve, maybe, unsupervised and learning to get fucked-up. Choking each other out.” In a dusty rejoinder to Chuck Klosterman’s Fargo Rock City, Wheeler shows a fine eye for the stranger aspects of this country, from spaceports built before there are rocket ships to dock there to what he dubs “patrionoia,” a blend of patriotism and paranoia that “runs rampant in Southern New Mexico.” His account of digging ditches in the caliche soil to repair water lines is a masterpiece of proletarian wistfulness, calculated to make the reader sweat, and his accompanying notion that the water in those lines is haunted is a provocative one for any desert dweller. Still, the book runs much too long, and some of the essays are set pieces that don’t do much: The author’s take on the nuclear legacy of the region is unoriginal, and his foray across the line into Ciudad Juárez pales in comparison to the work of the late Charles Bowden.
In need of trimming and occasional rethinking but with much promise as well.