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DESERT AMERICA by Rubén Martínez Kirkus Star

DESERT AMERICA

Boom and Bust in the New "New West"

By Rubén Martínez

Pub Date: Aug. 7th, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-8050-7977-7
Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

A savage journey into terror, cacti, drugs, desperation and all-around anomie in the superheated atmosphere of the desert Southwest.

Go east of Los Angeles 100 miles and you’re in downtown Tweakerville, an area full of meth labs, bad vibes and bad attitudes. The desert runs all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, and Martínez (Literature and Writing/Loyola Marymount Univ.; Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail, 2001, etc.) makes it his beat. The narrative begins in Albuquerque, a city that “cannot imagine itself a city because to do so would negate its reason for being.” It moves, subtly and without much fanfare, from the Southwest of the boom years, when the population of the region grew by 25 percent in just a decade, to the Southwest of today, a place of abandoned suburbs and forgotten hopes. Some of the ports of call are familiar—Joshua Tree, El Paso—and others not, but what sets Martínez’s journey apart is its philosophical underpinnings, the governing question being, “Who belongs here and who doesn’t?” By that reckoning, the adobe shacks, tattered palm trees and sun-bitten desert flats are all perfectly at home, whereas such things as the Santa Fe Opera, and most of Phoenix, and walls and fences that run parallel to the international line…well, not so much. As for the people, Martínez finds room for the likes of Mary Austin and Charles Lummis alongside the Native Americans and Latinos who have made the desert home for centuries. It is the latter people who are forgotten; toward the end of the book, for instance, the author quietly contrasts the well-heeled confines of Marfa, Texas, with the rest of Presidio County, half of whose people live in poverty.

Less self-absorbed than Luis Alberto Urrea, less cynical than Charles Bowden, less otherly obsessed than William Vollmann—and right in the pocket, a necessary chronicle of a weird corner of America.