New Mexico interregnum

Review of “Backlands: A Novel of the American West” by Michael McGarrity.

 

Backlands: A Novel of the American West
Michael McGarrity
512 pages, hardcover:
$28.95
Dutton, 2014.

 

New Mexican writer Michael McGarrity is perhaps best known for his crime novels, but his 14th book, Backlands, reads more like a biography of an era in his state’s history. Bracketed by the two World Wars, Backlands –– the second volume in a planned trilogy about the Kerney family –– unspools in an arid time of deprivation and loss, brightened by moments of love, lust and occasional luck. A sepia-toned map titled The American Southwest, 1930 prefaces the text, marking the landscape of the Kerneys’ lives, primarily in the Tularosa Valley.

Emma Kerney, a divorced mother, land speculator and sometime invalid, is a tough Western woman with little regard for propriety. Determined to control the future of her younger son, Matt, even as she is dying, she alienates the boy’s father, Patrick, a rancher with his own ideas about manhood. Matt’s older brother, CJ, died during World War I, and his shadow casts a lasting darkness on the younger boy’s plans.

What Emma cannot control or predict, however, is the loss of her fortune in the 1928 crash that brings on the Depression, or the Dust Bowl that turns the lush Tularosa Basin into a thirsty, economically starved landscape.

book-backlands-fsa-jpg
A section gang works on the outskirts along the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad between Clovis and Vaughn, New Mexico, 1943.
Jack Delano, FSA - Office of War Information Collection , Library of Congress, LC-USW3-020633-E.

Describing the pre-drought, pre-industrial years, McGarrity writes, “Under a clear blue sky, with the desert in full bloom from recent rains, the white gypsum dunes sparkled like diamonds and the Sacramento Mountains rose in sharp relief, hard and foreboding against the horizon, with the distant Sierra Blanca shimmering through the heat waves rising from the basin floor.” But the railroad brings an irrevocable transformation.

Soon, “the somber beauty of the untouched tableland with the long, unbroken uplift to the easterly hills where wide-mouthed canyons spilled from high mountains capped in thick forests, (was) changed forever.”

Although the secondary characters tend toward the two-dimensional, Matt and his difficult father transcend stereotype and compel empathy. Plot defers to chronology in this historical portrait; we know that wartime prosperity will follow worldwide depression, Axis victories will be succeeded by Allied triumphs. Yet readers will be waiting eagerly for the next volume to carry  the Kerneys into the 21st century.

High Country News Classifieds
  • RURAL ACREAGE OUTSIDE SILVER CITY, NM
    Country living just minutes from town! 20 acres with great views makes a perfect spot for your custom home. Nice oaks and juniper. Cassie Carver,...
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • OFFICE ADMINISTRATOR AND BOOKKEEPER
    Posted: July 19, 2021 Application deadline: August 27 or until position is filled. Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking a fulltime Office Administrator...
  • COMMUNITY ORGANIZER
    Posted: July 15, 2021 Application deadline: August 21, 2021 or until position is filled Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action is seeking three full time...
  • A FIVE STAR FOREST SETTING WITH SECLUSION AND SEPARATENESS
    This home is for a discerning buyer in search of a forest setting of premier seclusion & separateness. Surrounded on all sides by USFS land...
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!