The Southwest's writers are terrified liars
by Charles BowdenOne of the best modern novels about the real Southwest is in technicolor. It takes place in Prescott, Ariz.: A rodeo performer returns to his hometown, finds out that his brother is bulldozing the home ranch and slicing it up into ranchettes and subdivisions, that his dad is about to hit the road for prospecting in Australia, that the bull he must ride in the local rodeo might bust his chops, that the woman he picks up in a local bar is a big city number but lots of fun over the short haul, and that you can't go home again, unless you can stomach home after it has all gone to hell.
The novel is Sam Peckinpah's Junior Bonner, made to make lots of money and help folks kill time on rainy days. The movie tells us more about how we now live in the Southwest and what it feels, looks, and tastes like than the garbage truckloads of books regularly ejected from the region's creative writing departments. It does this for several reasons. It is relentlessly urban, as is the region. It mixes the Southwest's great natural beauty with its abundant human ugliness. It takes for granted that the Southwest is a place of false values, fast-buck artists, mental defectives, and that the region is being degraded and perhaps destroyed.
It recognizes the fact of Southwestern life; we build nothing that matches our terrain. This would not seem to be much of an accomplishment except for the literary dementia that characterizes the books I come across. I live in a region where almost all of the literature ignores the simple fact that for 100 years this region has been urban, rock-hard urban.
Let us waste no time with the obvious argument that art can concern itself with anything and that it is boorish to lay down strictures about its appropriate subject matter. Of course, this is true.
What I want to consider is why so little art in the Southwest considers that we live in booming, instant cities full of tanned bodies, vigorous crime, healthy doses of narcotics, and endless streets of ugly, mass-produced houses. I'll put it another way: What would you think if everyone writing and painting and taking photographs in the New York City of 1910 was cranking out stuff like Washington Irving's Legend of Sleeping Hollow? That is pretty much what I see happening in the American Southwest.
Lying about the West in general and the Southwest in particular has been an American cottage industry for over a century. The very term "the Western" is synonymous with fraud, sentimentality, and flim-flam.
In an odd way, we have gotten ourselves into the same position as Henry James when he made his famous lament about America being barren ground for a real literature, that whining, disgusting, simpering litany that ran
... items of high civilization, as it exists in other countries, which are absent from the texture of American life ... No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no places, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor Norman churches; no great Universities, nor public schools - no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class - no Epsom nor Ascot!
In the Southwest, we have dodged the fact of our raw, instant civilization by doting on strands of Native American culture, worshiping conquistadores or long-dead clerics, having wet dreams about former psychotics who were handy with guns, dipping into visions of vanished peoples who left comely stone ruins.
It is a lot easier to find a good book about Navajos or gunfighters than about real estate developers. Which ones do you think have done more to change the face of this land?
I think we should face a few rude facts. We have created a civilization in the modern deserts, one barely a century old, that is so attractive and powerful in the eyes of our fellow citizens, that they flock to it despite shrinking water supplies, low wages, and darkening skies. Yet we cannot seem to face our acts in our imaginative literature or grapple with them in our histories. We say practically nothing about such matters. We live in exploding cities and fall mute when confronted with what we see. And the fortunate appearance of a Milagro Beanfield War or a Monkey Wrench Gang hardly undercuts this claim.
The best of all writing in the Southwest today appears in newspapers and magazines. I'd rather read The Texas Monthly than most of the drivel produced by our universities. One of the curiosities about modern scholarship is that it stops abruptly when it gets near the present.
Just look at the titles and how they pick an end date conveniently remote from the bustle of our own world. You might claim an exception for political science, but these groups of decision makers (a term that I guess covers everything from contract killers to elected officials) can write about anything they want, since no one can possibly understand what they are saying and nobody reads them.
The history of the Southwest for the past century has been one of taking. Cheap and easy resources have beckoned successive waves of vandals - cattle barons looting the grass; Eastern capital ripping minerals out of the soil; the military seizing large patches of earth for playing with the toys of war; federally subsidized agriculture growing redundant crops, gutting aquifers, and slowly stilling the ground with salt; American culture confining and browbeating Native American views of the world. And now real estate fortunes based on slicing land into various configurations and peddling off the remains. Very little of merit is written about this taking.
I have a friend who recently sold a photograph of a proposed wilderness and was appalled when a careful examination of the image revealed a telephone line snaking through the saguaros. Had he known, he would have shot the picture so that this fact of who we are and how we live would have been carefully edited out by the lens.
I do not think we will ever have a literature or body of work that will matter, either to ourselves or to those who come after us, until we cease such acts. I do not know what this literature will be like. Except that it will be characterized by an effort to understand rather than obsession with ignoring.
In the Southwest we face a rare opportunity. We can view something akin in scale to nation building occurring right before our eyes. We live in a time when the memory of the taking is still alive, and when the fact of the raping is our daily bread.
I buy a couple of thick, dull books a week and wade through some of the most boring material ever scribbled in my diligent effort to get some understanding of what in the hell is happening around me. I can't get no satisfaction. And then, because of my work, I keep bumping into the grubby habits of modern life and wondering why they are not the grist of our novels, histories, paintings, and photographs.
He lives through the telephone. It is 10 a.m., and the calls flood in from around the city, the talk never stops, and the talk is deals. He is 100 years deep into Tucson, his family roots twine back into conquistadores, and he spends his every waking moment selling the ground out from under his past, present and future.
A few months back his fee from ramming a real estate deal through the city government ran to $80,000. He summered on the Coast off that one. Now he is busy refilling his coffers. There is this ground west of town that always floods and is worthless, but now, with the arrival of the Central Arizona Project, he and the boys have noticed the big canal will act like a buffer dam; they see millions in the virgin tracts.
The phone rings, he disappears into another conversation. A shopping center here, a higher density there. The face smiles into the receiver, the voice rises and falls, barks and wheedles, teases and snaps. He scurries about, lining up options here and options there, the conversations punctuated with jokes, laughter, and darts of numbers. He is the wildlife of my desert now. n
Charles Bowden's essay is from the book Open Spaces, City Places: Contemporary Writers on the Changing Southwest, edited by Judy Nolte Temple, University of Arizona Press, 1230 N. Park Ave., Suite 102, Tucson, AZ 85719 (602/621-1441). 1994: $14.95 paperback.
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