Saints and sinners in the Southwest

A new book explores the dark characters that make the wide-open West their home.

 

Perhaps the most influential image of the Southwest in recent years was created by popular culture in Breaking Bad, the immensely popular AMC series that ran from 2008 to 2013, and its current spin-off, Better Call Saul. Both shows portray an Albuquerque of dusty deserts and barren asphalt, filled with grifters, addicts, drug pushers, deadbeat dads, desperate losers and kingpins, who exist alongside mostly decent and yet corruptible citizens. These shows evoke a measure of sympathy for the rule-breakers they portray.

Don Waters sets his fine recent story collection, The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain, in a Southwest somewhere in the neighborhood of Breaking Bad’s Albuquerque. Waters’ territory features less violence and more spiritual reflection, but its contours are familiar. Waters, the author of two previous books, grew up in Reno, Nevada, and lives in Portland, Oregon. His characters, like those in Breaking Bad, have never met a bad idea they didn’t love.

In the title story, a convict is transferred to a prison ranch amid sagebrush-choked and arroyo-furrowed country in Nevada, where his work with mustangs is intended to rehabilitate him. Instead, it spurs him to realize how unprepared he is for life outside of prison.

In other stories, Waters’ characters stay on the right side of the law, just barely. In “Española,” Waters follows Lucero, a conflicted veteran with the self-discipline of an ascetic who returns home to Española, New Mexico, after serving in Iraq. He discovers a town beset by addiction, where his junkie father has sold his sister to pay off a drug debt, prompting Lucero to engage in a combat-style mission in his own hometown.

In a story with an utterly different protagonist, “La Luz de Jesús,” James, a ridiculous low-level actor and wannabe screenwriter from Los Angeles, shows up to New Mexico in costume, wearing illegal cowboy boots “made from sealskin and purchased from a Russian in La Brea with an orange rub-on tan.” He’s hoping the setting will inspire him to finally finish a screenplay, but instead he’s unexpectedly enthralled by a group of local penitentes, who meet for religious rites including self-flagellation. Against all odds, the frivolous James, a lapsed Catholic, ends up re-enacting Jesus’ long walk to Calvary, dragging a heavy cross down a dirt lane.

This story and others suggest that the West — through its landscape, culture, wildlife and rituals — exerts a powerful influence on the people who inhabit it, occasionally driving them to madness. In “Deborah,” an obsessive Arizona woman shelters rescued animals on her ranch. She so desires to achieve “communion” with a wild animal that she visits a mountain lion at a nearby derelict zoo and offers it her fingers for lunch. Her actions make no sense, but to her they are a kind of holy ritual. “All the Sundays ahead she tried giving herself to the animal, feeding herself to him,” Waters writes, “which was the closest she’d ever gotten to saintliness, she providing gifts, her pain blossoming into pleasure, feeling his teeth against bone, his saliva writing scripture on her skin.”

A Parade of Souls is part of Day of the Dead celebrations in Merida, Mexico.
Lorenzo Hernandez/Reuters

“Todos Santos” features another character so enraptured by nature that he becomes unmoored from his obligations to other people. In this case, the protagonist is a middle-aged surf bum named Tom who runs a surfing lesson operation in Baja. Tom cares about nothing except surfing. “He fell in love with a thing, he followed the thing, and before long the thing had its hooks in him and it was the only thing he knew.” He neglects to tell his girlfriend that he has a teenage son he abandoned before birth. When the son and his stepdad visit Tom’s town, forcing him to reckon with his mistakes and choices, Waters makes clear the deep and lasting scars this kind of person can leave in the lives of others.

One of the strongest stories in the book is “Day of the Dead,” about a young man dying of cancer, who decides to kill himself before the disease ravages him. But he doesn’t want to do it alone, so he finds a group of other sufferers online who plan to cross the border into Juarez, a violent city that few tourists without a death wish venture to. They plan to commit suicide on El Día de Los Muertos. The subject may sound macabre, but Waters’ take on it is darkly comic, lovely and moving.

In many of these stories, Waters writes from the perspective of a character that few readers would have natural sympathy for — the deadbeat dad, the masochistic animal lady, a convict, an anti-abortion zealot. By drawing the reader into their worlds and their beliefs, Waters evokes a grudging respect for their choices and their right to live the way they want to live out in the open West, amid landscapes that make a human being feel “like a loosened molecule without boundary.”

Note: A previous version of this article stated Breaking Bad ran on HBO, not AMC.

High Country News Classifieds
  • LAND ACQUISTIONS SPECIALIST - RENEWABLE ENERGY
    Energiekontor US seeks experienced local candidate, must reside in western South Dakota. Send resume and cover letter to: [email protected]
  • TRANSPORTATION PLANNER
    TRANSPORTATION PLANNER Exciting opportunity to lead the charge on meeting the future transportation demands of our community! This position will develop, coordinate, and implement the...
  • EARNED MEDIA MANAGER WITH WESTERN RESOURCE ADVOCATES
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • WILDLAND FIRE INSTRUCTOR
    Needed: instructor with 5 years *documented* instruction experience, current qualifications, M-410 or equivalent, and able to work as-needed for NM non-profit working with at-risk youth.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Seeking passionate full-time Executive to lead the oldest non-profit organization in Idaho. Must have knowledge of environmental issues, excellent organizational, verbal presentation and written skills,...
  • COLORADO PROGRAM MANAGER
    The National Parks Conservation Association, the leading non-profit conservation organization protecting Americas national parks, seeks a Program Manager for its Colorado Field Office located in...
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...
  • FORGE & FAB SHOP
    with home on one beautiful acre in Pocatello, ID. Blackrock Forge - retiring after 43 years! Fully equipped 5,500 sf shop including office, gallery and...
  • SMALL FARM AT THE BASE OF MOUNT SHASTA
    Certified organic fruit/berry/veggie/flower farm. Home, barns, garage, separate apt, more. Just under 2 ac, edge of town. Famously pure air and water. Skiing, mountaineering, bike,...