DEATH VALLEY '69 by Lili Ristagno


Email this review


Charles Manson and his followers leave a trail of drugs, sex, and violence in this look at America’s 1960s counterculture.

The ’60s were a tumultuous era. From sexual liberation and rock ’n’ roll to the civil rights movement, the Apollo 11 landing, and the Vietnam War protests, a sense of unrest boiled up across the United States, including in California. Ristagno (Short Fuse, 2012) sets the stage for the Manson family’s birth with ample LSD and communal orgies. Wheeling from rock stars to starlets to the children of the nouveau riche, the work shows that many embraced the delirium of the times—and few were able to resist Manson’s charisma. Accompanied by the author’s garish color pencil-and-ink illustrations evoking a deformed, hallucinatory haze, figures like filmmaker Kenneth Anger and Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, along with a train of Manson family members—including Bobby Beausoleil and Tex Watson—briefly take the spotlight. In addition, Ristagno offers digressions that involve antiquated science (“As recently as 1842, England’s ‘Lunacy Act’ maintained that the madness attributed to the full moon was distinct from that of the incurably insane”), conspiracy theories (the moon landing was fake), and astrology (the number 9 is “mathematically fascinating” because of its connection to “the strangest cut” on the Beatles’ “White Album,” “Revolution 9,” which some think is a reference to the ninth plague of Egypt). Rather than following any chronological order, the volume pieces together the Manson story through loosely connected anecdotes and footnotes in an attempt to pack in as many details as possible. While many of these tidbits are intriguing, the lack of narrative cohesion ultimately causes the book to lose focus. An air of vagueness surrounds many of the characters and their actions. In addition, some sentences are written with such an unremitting sensationalism that they become melodramatic and kitschy: “Those shapely legs, having ridden so many (both man and beast), strode now encased in nylon (the effect was enchanting) beneath her martyr-pale face.” But Ristagno depicts the Manson family’s various grisly murders, including the killings of Gary Hinman and Rosemary LaBianca, with an unflinching control of suspense. These strong portions remain the highlight here. Unfortunately, this sense of buildup falls short in the rest of the work. Manson lurks at every corner and yet it feels as if he is lost in the haze—an ultimately forgotten premise.

An uneven attempt to encapsulate a turbulent decade.

ISBN: 978-0-692-83601-9
Page count: 122pp
Publisher: Bombshell Publishing
Program: Kirkus Indie
Review Posted Online:


NonfictionMEMBER OF THE FAMILY by Dianne Lake
by Dianne Lake
NonfictionSUMMER OF LOVE by Joel Selvin
by Joel Selvin
NonfictionMANSON by Jeff Guinn
by Jeff Guinn