Building a desert reading list
Earlier this month, when I was in the desert, I spent some time with A.S. Fleischman’s Southern California noir “The Sun Worshippers”, written in the early 1960s and never published until now. Fleischman, who died in 2010 at age 90, is perhaps best remembered as Sid Fleischman, the Newbery Award-winning author of such middle reader novels as “The Whipping Boy” and “By the Great Horn Spoon!”
Yet before he wrote for kids, Fleischman was a screenwriter who also published popular fiction: thrillers, crime novels, westerns. His 1960 novel “Yellow Leg” -- reprinted in the same omnibus paperback edition as “The Sun Worshippers” -- was the source of Sam Peckinpah’s debut “The Deadly Companions,” for which Fleischman wrote the script.
“The Sun Worshippers” is a tale of hubris, the story of Gamage, a former Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist turned failed screenwriter, who finds himself in the desert town of Thebes, Calif. (“City of the Sun”), where he has agreed to write the authorized biography of a wealthy land developer who is building a full-sized pyramid as both a twisted sort of self-tribute and a real estate come-on.
Gamage is smart enough to see through this, but he needs the money. And there is unfinished business with a woman (isn’t there always?), who happens to be the developer’s daughter-in-law. It’s a classic setup, which is both the novel’s charm and its failing -- that it doesn’t do enough with the tropes of noir, Southern California culture or the desert, that it doesn’t make us feel them at the core.
And yet, reading “The Sun Worshippers” makes me think of other desert writing, going back to Mary Austin’s “Land of Little Rain” (1903). “Scratch the surface a little and the desert shows through,” Bertolt Brecht once wrote about the region, and it’s a trope that marks our literature.
Raymond Chandler and John Fante — the magnificent closing scenes of “Ask the Dust” (1939) take place in the desert — Carey McWilliams and Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson (“We were somewhere around Barstow,” Thompson begins “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” (1971), “on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold”): All of them address the desert, understanding it as a central underpinning to this landscape, the elemental territory from which the city was created and to which it will return.
Richard Rayner’s 1988 novel “Los Angeles Without a Map” comes to a head in a taut desert scene. Then there’s Tod Goldberg, whose terrific 2009 collection of short stories “Other Resort Cities” uses the desert as a kind of metaphorical leaping-off point, examining the fallout of a rootless culture, not unlike the one in which a man might build a desert pyramid to himself.
Like Brecht, of course, I’m only scratching the surface. What are your favorite works of desert literature?
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