Friendship and disappearance in the desert

A debut novel highlights the strength of women, even as they face trouble.

 

Southwestern deserts are home to quiet, reclusive creatures whose venom enables them to survive. They often issue warnings before they strike: The rattlesnake shakes its tail, the black widow spider displays her ruby hourglass, the scorpion raises its stinger. In Ruchika Tomar’s taut debut novel, A Prayer for Travelers, many of the women in fictional Pomoc, Nevada, seem to channel the power of the animals in the landscape around them, somewhere near the California border where the Mojave and Great Basin deserts meet. Pity anyone who fails to recognize their hidden reserves of strength.

Tomar, who grew up in the Inland Empire of Southern California, conjures the feel of the desert setting with the precision of her spare prose. In their intense isolation, her characters have internalized the vastness of the landscape and the solitary tendencies of its inhabitants. They form attachments rarely, as though friendship costs too much. One character is still known as “the new guy three years after landing in Pomoc,” Tomar writes. “In a community as small as this one, there was a compound interest in minding one’s business, in making peace with difficult neighbors, in living and letting live.”

As the book opens, Lamb, the grandfather of the 19-year-old protagonist, Cale Lambert, is dying of cancer. Lamb raised Cale after her mother abandoned her at birth, and now Cale cares for him and supports the two of them by working as a waitress at Jake’s, Pomoc’s lone diner. There, she makes her first real friend, Penny Reyes, the town beauty, who mostly ignored her when they were in school.

When Penny, who is a working-class Latina, turns up missing and no one seems concerned — including her friends, her family and the cops — Cale embarks on a desperate quest to find her. She starts in town, then ventures across the desert to its scattered outposts of civilization, with their dangerous lure of quick money and sex. In many Western stories about disappeared women, a man cracks the case while the victim’s story goes untold. In A Prayer for Travelers, the men Cale asks for help prove unreliable, so she is forced to solve the mystery herself. In the process, she uncovers Penny’s past as well as her dreams for the future. Tomar creates a vivid, nuanced human portrait instead of a generic, weak victim.

Pomoc is an elemental noir desert town, where drug abuse is common and resources are scant. The women face especially harsh conditions. No one, Tomar suggests, escapes this kind of vulnerable situation unscathed. A Texaco serves as the meeting place for prostitutes who are not “careerists” but “mothers and girlfriends with day jobs whose checks came too late or too short; the extra baby formula, the surprise hospital bill.” But Tomar also highlights the town’s consolations, such as the warm familiarity of the diner’s longest-serving waitress, and Cale’s devotion to Lamb and Penny.

Tomar constructs A Prayer for Travelers with a fractured timeline: The chapters are numbered chronologically, but presented out of order. The traumatic incidents at the center of the story shatter Cale’s sense of chronology, and the book’s elliptical structure evokes a survivor’s fragmented recollections. Sometimes Tomar strings a few consecutive scenes together, and at other times she makes great leaps ahead or backward. It’s a testament to the author’s skill that this technique rarely confuses. On the contrary, it heightens the suspense when a tantalizing clue about the future appears early on — such as a facial injury Cale sustains, whose cause is not explained for another hundred pages. 

While the main character’s desert-rat reticence and her author’s scene-shuffling enhance the novel’s mood and themes, there are a few crucial moments where her motivations and desires are unclear. This is significant, because she undergoes a radical personality shift during the course of the book, from meek to bold to vengeful. It’s a puzzle of a book that you have to sit with for a while after finishing, reconstructing it in your mind in order to understand what happened and thereby appreciate the power of the story.

The West often serves as the backdrop for books, movies and television shows whose plots revolve around violence against women. In interviews, Tomar has talked about growing up in rural Southern California, hearing stories of women’s bodies found in the desert outside of Vegas. In the denouement, Tomar skillfully plays with the audience’s expectations that young women in trouble are likely to end up powerless or dead. Several of Tomar’s female characters face trauma, but possess a surprising capacity for retribution and resilience. In the end, they, not their abusers, the detectives, or even the men who want to save them, hold the cards and tell the story.

Jenny Shank’s novel, The Ringer, won the High Plains Book Award. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic and The Washington PostEmail HCN at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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