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

High Country News Classifieds
  • MEMBERSHIP DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Membership Director Job Title: Membership Director Supervisor: Executive Director Classification: Full-time exempt Location: Boise, ID Job Overview Winter Wildlands Alliance is seeking a...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • STEWARDSHIP SPECIALIST
    San Isabel Land Protection Trust seeks experienced person to manage its 133 conservation easements in south-central Colorado.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Executive Director Position Announcement POSITION TITLE: Executive Director ORGANIZATION: Friends of Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument REPORTING TO: Board of Directors LOCATION: Ashland, OR POSTING CLOSES: March...
  • ARIZONA CONSERVATION CORPS PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Arizona Conservation Corps is seeking a Program Director in Flagstaff or Tucson
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • NEW MEXICO PROPERTY - SILVER CITY
    20 acres, $80,000. Owner financing, well, driveway, fencing possible, very private, sensible covenants, broker owned. Contact - 575-534-7955 or [email protected]
  • GRANT WRITER
    "We all love this place we call Montana. We believe that land and water and air are not ours to despoil, but ours to steward...
  • COMMUNICATIONS COORDINATOR
    ABOUT US: "This thriving citizens organization exemplifies the ideal of public involvement in public processes." - Billings Gazette At Northern Plains, we believe that true...
  • ST. LAWRENCE UNIVERSITY - ASSISTANT DIRECTOR IN THE OUTDOOR PROGRAM
    To view the complete position description please visit: http://employment.stlawu.edu. St. Lawrence University is an Equal Opportunity Employer.
  • TRAIL CREW & ASSISTANT TRAIL CREW LEADERS
    SEEKING TALENTED TRAIL WORK LEADERS The Pacific Crest Trail Association, headquartered in Sacramento, California is dedicated to protecting, preserving and promoting the Pacific Crest National...
  • SEASONAL SAN JUAN RANGERS
    Seeking experienced crew members to patrol Colorado's most iconic mountain wilderness.
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • DEVELOPMENT AND ADVOCACY DIRECTOR
    Provide stewardship and protection for the Great Burn wildlands along the Montana-Idaho stateline. This position is based in Missoula, MT, where a river runs through...
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • WILDERNESS CONSERVATION CORPS - OREGON
    The Siskiyou Mountain Club is hiring interns for the 2020 Field Season. Interns utilize non-mechanized tools to complete trail restoration and maintenance while gaining job...
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.