IT WAS high noon and the sun was throwing a harsh light over the foreboding landscape that faces the Salton Sea. The place was infernal, over 111 degrees in the shade. This 376-mile high-saline lake and its surrounding community is 220 feet below sea level. Palm Desert, which is about 40 miles away, is cool by comparison. The Salton Sea shouldn’t even be here. When the Colorado River couldn’t hold its overflow in 1905, a dam in the Imperial Valley broke, and that diverted water into the town of Salton and submerged it forever. Salton, the town, is long forgotten, and no one exactly visits the Salton Sea for kicks either.
Not that extreme heat is necessarily a deterrent: Bombay Beach, one of a handful of towns that encircle the Salton Sea, is inhospitable enough without the Dante sun lamp. The town feels like it is on the final descent of a slow fade to black. Vacant one-bedroom houses, their insides hollowed out like children’s forts, sit next to occupied homes with desiccated yards that the owners have made a game yet sadly touching attempt to prettify. On a recent afternoon there was no one around except the owner of the general store, who pointed to his Orange Crush thermometer and mentioned that it was 100 degrees in his store.
Marisa Silver wouldn’t have it any other way. As she drove slowly around the perimeter of Bombay Beach, one of the forlorn towns in the region that inspired her latest novel, “The God of War,” the L.A.-based writer was rapturous. “Oh, look at the bougainvillea,” she said while pointing at a tall sprig held together by chicken wire. A few feet down the road, Silver spotted another home surrounded by tires whose insides had been filled with five-and-dime flowers. “Oh, that’s really nice,” she said without a trace of irony in her voice.
Silver wasn’t being paternalistic, nor does she want to drape gauze over the plight of the working poor who live here. Where others might see Bombay Beach as a place where hope comes to die, Silver sees it as a redoubt of some indomitable spirit that lurks in all of us. “There’s something gallant about this place, how people are building a life here,” she said.
In “The God of War,” that survival instinct is put through its paces as the protagonist, a 12-year-old boy named Ares, tries to carve a little refuge of normalcy for himself amid the complications of his family life. Tucked away with his mother and younger brother in Bombay Beach, Ares’ life is as pinched and circumscribed as this desert community. He is carrying a heavy burden of guilt; Ares believes his mute brother Malcolm’s brain damage was because of his being dropped by Ares when Malcolm was a baby.
Ares is completely locked into a straitened existence borne of his own guilt and the burden that’s placed on him to care for Malcolm. “Being the sibling of a child with health problems obviously creates a lot of complex issues,” Silver said as she drove past a hot-water tank onto which someone had scribbled a happy face. “It makes a kid unbelievably empathetic, but that comes at a huge cost.”
Ares and Malcolm are both coddled by their mother Laurel’s overprotectiveness but left to their own devices when they find themselves alone more often than not. Ares, in short, has had adulthood thrust upon him against his will. Only an occasional spasm of emetic yelping from Malcolm gives Ares any hope of peering into his brother’s head, but “I knew not to make the mistake of hoping. Hope was only a selfish desire to escape the misery of my culpability, and I knew from reading “Twelve Angry Men,” which I found in the trash outside the library . . . that I could not be found innocent; the evidence was stacked against me.”
Laurel’s vanishing act has created a weightlessness in Ares’ everyday life, an open-ended existence that isn’t all that pleasant. Like the characters in Silver’s two previous books, “No Direction Home” and “Babe in Paradise,” Ares longs for some kind of meaningful bond wherever he can find it. Malcolm’s tutor, Mrs. Poole, is a prim sort, abstemious and strict, yet Ares clings to her as someone who might give him the structure he longs for. Her ne’er-do-well foster child Kevin is a potential mentor for Ares, even if his behavior runs counter to Ares’ sturdy morality.
“What makes children feel safe, ultimately?” Silver asked. “Perhaps too much freedom is more frightening than abiding by rules, especially when Ares sees that the world has danger.”
Silver was sipping a tall iced tea in Bobby D’s Pizza Plus in Niland, a town 15 miles north of Bombay Beach that features prominently in “The God of War.” This four-booth restaurant has old pictures of people fishing and frolicking along the shoreline of the Salton Sea, reminders of a time when the place was going to be a “Riviera of the West.” It’s hard to imagine what it might be like for a child growing up in such an inhospitable place, but Silver’s portrayal of Ares is not tinctured by pity.
“You take where you are for granted. Ares only knows what he sees on TV because he hasn’t been anywhere else,” Silver said. “But he’s reached a point in his life where his mind is starting to open up. Suddenly, you realize that there are choices you can make, and that your parents aren’t telling you the whole story. I find that to be a very poignant time for a kid.”
IN LYRICAL and evocative prose, Silver traces Ares’ path toward emotional self-sufficiency across the barren topography of the Salton Sea and its environs. Everyone in the book, in fact, is fumbling toward some fleeting chance at intimacy, and failing miserably at it. But this isn’t a finger-wagging morality play; it speaks to Silver’s empathetic skill as a novelist that even the most flawed characters in the book aren’t demonized.
‘When I was a kid I worked on a documentary about a Hare Krishna commune, and the children were just as isolated as Ares,” said Silver, who began her creative life as a filmmaker. “It’s easy for us to cast aspersions on parents who impose their own belief systems on their children, but most parents have the best of intentions, for better or worse. It’s both the folly and the beauty of parenting.”
Silver paid the tab for her tea -- $1 -- and drove past some of the strange signposts of the region en route back to Bombay Beach. On the left side of the road was something that appeared to be a missile silo, but it might also have been some Robert Smithson-esque art installation; it was hard to tell. There are no signs of life anywhere along this route, not even a passing car. “There’s a lot of ordnance out there,” said Silver. “The military used this area as a testing ground for artillery.” The sea, utterly still and creepy, loomed in the distance.
Back at Bombay Beach, Silver walked to the water. Thousands of dead tilapia fish lined the shore; the smell was rank and overwhelming. “The birds eat the fish and then they die too,” Silver commented. Just inland, Silver spotted something that pleased her. It was a stretch of beach that has been fissured by the sun, creating an effect that Silver likened to “the skin of a giraffe.” There was an abandoned jeep resembling the rotting skeleton of a large jungle animal; a picnic bench had sunk into the sand, leaving only its table-top exposed. “There’s something beautiful about that,” said Silver.
The Salton Sea is such a sui generis environment that it’s remarkable more novelists haven’t tapped into it. In fact, the entire corpus of literature devoted to the California desert, and by extension the greater Inland Empire, is relatively small. Novelist Susan Straight has used Riverside as her own Yoknapatawpha County, referring to it in her fiction as “Rio Seco.” But Straight, whom Silver admires, is a California native. Silver is a New York transplant whose Upper East Side childhood couldn’t have been more different than Ares’. And yet she is compelled to probe the neglected or otherwise maligned regions of Southern California, if only because she thinks they deserve a fair shake.
In order to research “The God of War,” Silver made multiple trips here, talking to people and watching the landscape. “Mostly, I would just stand here, and try to imagine what my characters would feel about the land. Ares doesn’t know any better, so this is normal to him.”
That’s why Silver prizes an otherwise forgotten place like the Salton Sea; she sees it as a successful experiment in what she calls “human ecology.” “I mean, look at this plant,” she said, while tenderly fingering the leaf of a lonely scrub. “It doesn’t take much for it to grow. The land finds a foothold.” This is what the characters in “The God of War” are looking for: a little, just a little, nurturing to make them thrive.