Geographers and journalists tend to think of the Southwest as a region, but in truth, it’s more a haphazard assortment of microclimates, environmental and cultural. It’s reservation and barrio, barren deserts and overrun tourist traps. It’s home to global centers for New Age woo-woo (Taos, Sedona), scruffy foothill cities (Tucson) and sun-baked urban sprawl (Phoenix, Los Angeles). Palm Springs pays tribute to the largesse of the Colorado River; the shrinking Salton Sea is a warning about its limits. Southern Utah and northern Arizona make grand cases for why nature is worth preserving; Las Vegas and vast military test bases demonstrate our irrepressible urge to subdue it.
Joshua Wheeler detours around them all in favor of his native southern New Mexico in the engagingly chatty and seriocomic “Acid West.” In the popular imagination, the region is defined by cliched Wild West tales about Billy the Kid and UFO conspiracy theories about Roswell. But in his first essay collection, Wheeler is determined to put “SNM” on the map on new terms that don’t play to stereotypes.
“When you hear I’m from New Mexico, you may have visions of saguaro, towering green beacons of lawless freedom, but there are no saguaros here,” he writes. “They are your icon of the West. For us they are signposts of a myth we didn’t make.” (Either via accident or irony, the book’s cover includes images of saguaros anyway.)
So if SNM isn’t Sonoran Desert flora or Billy the Kid (who’s only mentioned in passing), what is it? For one thing, it’s a place that hasn’t fully reckoned with its legacy as the site of the first nuclear bomb test. In “Children of the Desert,” Wheeler zips from history to reportage to personal essay to explore the test’s effect on the generations of people who’ve lived downwind from it, the cancer they’ve inherited from it and the official silence it has been met with. Wheeler bemoans how the event has warped into cultural totem, where “I Had a Blast at Trinity” T-shirts sell for $25.99, reducing “immense tragedy to a corny pun,” and the local Applebee’s is be-flaired with Trinity memorabilia. “They are enjoying their Quesadilla Burgers or Grilled Chicken Wonton Tacos while looming over them is a memorial to the thing that will likely bring the world as we know it to an end.”
Good-faith efforts to speak the truth are problematic too: An activist insists that downwinders are “ultimate patriots” who’ve died for their country. But as Wheeler notes, “A patriot makes a conscious sacrifice. A victim, on the other hand, is powerless.” And though “Acid West” doesn’t have a theme so much as a setting, its longest and most forceful pieces depict the region as a place full of people like those downwinders, residents exploited in the name of myths about technology. On a relatively innocuous level are the UFO-enthusiast jamborees in Roswell, populated by what Wheeler calls “patronoiacs,” (a combination of patriots and paranoiacs) “whose love for America is outstripped only by their distrust of the government.” Or it’s a place of unlikely modern gold mines, like the 2014 convergence of video-game geeks and profiteers in Alamogordo hoping to cash in on a legendary, massive buried cache of glitchy “E.T.” Atari cartridges the company had dumped in 1983, reducing the town to a symbol of trash culture, literally and virtually.
More seriously, though, that exploitation results in things like Spaceport America, built in 2011 as the launch point for Virgin Galactic’s still-unrealized plans for commercial spaceflight. New Mexico, one of the country’s most persistently impoverished states, remains saddled with a construction bill barely offset by the small groups of tourists it can attract to Truth or Consequences, the nearest town. Wheeler wants, he writes, to “know for sure whether Spaceport America represents a paradigm shift for human travel or a boondoggle for the forty-second poorest state in the nation or a carnival fad for the 1 percent.”
As an essayist, Wheeler has some clear influences: Joan Didion’s bone-deep skepticism, David Foster Wallace’s polymathic, omnivorous greed for information, Edward Abbey’s grizzled affection for desert culture. But there’s also a somberness, even fatalism, to “Acid West” that’s unique to Wheeler and perhaps to southern New Mexico as well. The feeling is pronounced in “Things Most Surely Believed,” about Terry Clark, who was executed in 2001 for raping and murdering a 9-year-old girl; corresponding with Clark’s widow and researching the case, Wheeler becomes caught up in themes of hellfire and salvation he can’t resolve. “I feel powerless and complicit in something,” he writes. “I feel my feelings make it worse.”
In that line, Wheeler is the inheritor of a conflict that’s defined the last few generations of American essay writers — they’re supposed to speak their passions but also keep their emotions at a distance. It’s a hard balance to maintain, and sometimes Wheeler drifts toward glibness or callousness. A riff on the 2012 Red Bull-sponsored space jump that launched from Roswell all but invites snark about commercialism and hype. But he struggles to make sense of the death of a high school acquaintance he hardly knew but who kept “pictures of me or snippets of things about me that might have been in my scrapbook.” So he riffs broadly on the theme of memory, encompassing Mark Twain, a gas mask and other “scraps.” It’s an erudite but evasive piece, circling its subject without quite closing in on it.
Wheeler strays from his home state in these essays only once, and then just barely. In the closing “A Million Tiny Daggers,” he visits a Ciudad Juarez asylum for mentally ill criminals who are experimenting with acupuncture treatments, “five needles shooting an inch out of each ear like a mad science experiment or some Hellraiser congregation.” Here too, Wheeler is comfortable rambling a bit, delivering longueurs on earrings, toilet seats, the Trinity test again, how we define healing and how often it’s in the eye of the beholder. Like a southern New Mexican, he’s doubtful that all those pinpricks can add up to something. But like the southern New Mexicans who courted an empty and useless spaceport, there’s a part of him that wants to believe.
Athitakis is a critic in Phoenix.
Joshua Wheeler appears at the L.A. Times Festival of Books at 3 p.m. April 21 on the panel “Writing the West,” moderated by William Deverell, with Stephen G. Bloom (“The Audacity of Inez Burns”) and Bryan Mealer (“The Kings of Big Spring: God, Oil, and One Family’s Search for the American Dream”).
“Acid West: Essays”
MCD x FSG Originals: 416 pp., $17 paper