Waller’s nostalgic, low-strumming latest novel (after High Plains Tango, 2005) is a wispy distillation of several hard-bitten voices scratching out a living in the Texas desert.
In one long, decisive night in the high desert of Guapa Mountain, not far from the Mexican border, Waller’s various gun-slinging, plainspoken characters will converge at the Clear Signal, Texas, ranch called the Two Pair, purchased some years before in a card-game bluff by the aging professional gambler Winchell Dear. At the housekeeper’s adobe near the main house, a coyote—a Mexican runner of contraband, in this case, drugs—makes his drop through Sonia Dominguez’s window, watched from a distance outside by the longtime Indian squatter on the ranch, Peter Long Grass. Peter senses impending trouble this night, as does Winchell, sitting up playing solitaire in the main house, and reminiscing quietly about ladies of yore. Meanwhile, trouble indeed approaches, in the form of two L.A. hit men with a hand-drawn map targeting Sonia’s house; like fish out of water, the city-slickers wear expensive suits and ride in a cream-colored Lincoln Continental with an arsenal of guns taped to its underside. And lastly, there’s the diamondback rattler making its deadly circle of the property. “So the high-desert night began to play itself like an old Victrola song,” the narrator sighs. Waller manages to keep the action percolating for such a slender affair, and dips into the backstories of the motley protagonists with sentimental glee. As a teenager, Winchell was destined to become a gambler by sanction of his father, a disgruntled border patrolman; Peter has grown disillusioned with the American Indian Movement after the “mess up” at Wounded Knee; and Sonia has endured a tough, lonely life since she emigrated at 15 and had to give up her son.
Hard knocks in the high desert. Crazy luck—or coincidence—marks this squeaky desert romance.