Imagine you’re taking a walk in Joshua Tree or thereabouts, and you’ve gotten far enough from your car or cabin to be surrounded by desert. You take it in: a striking cactus, some scrubby plants, then an expanse of sand stretching to the horizon shimmering under the impossibly bright sky. Sweating, you reach down for your water bottle … and it’s empty.
There is a flash of fear: Gosh, I’m really thirsty. How far do I have to go? How hot is it today, exactly? Before hoofing it back to modern comforts, you consider what it was like to try to make it in the desert West a century ago: the relentless sun, the endless thirst, nothing between you and the elements but a scrap of determined hope.
That is where Téa Obreht plops us down, in a whisper of a town in the Arizona Territory in 1893, in “Inland,” her first book since her 2011 bestselling debut, “The Tiger’s Wife.” Suffused with magical realism, “Inland” is a sweeping story of the outcasts who drift into this desolate corner of the West. There’s a huge cast, stretching back half a century, who orbit around two characters in particular.
One is Nora Lark, a mother, wife and farmer who does not suffer fools. When the story begins, her husband, who runs a small newspaper, has gone off on a long errand, and her elder sons have followed. She’s at home with a vulnerable crew — her youngest son, an invalid mother, a teenage female ward — and a well that has run dry. The rituals of saving, rationing and obtaining water are detailed in the text but disrupted in practice. Nora is thirsty. She is thirsty all the time.
The other main character has a different, deeper thirst. Lurie Mattie can see the dead, and if he connects with them too closely, he absorbs their unrealized desires — what he calls their “want.” While this is undeniably sad, it can have a funny edge; when a young pickpocket dies, Lurie begins stealing to satisfy him. “The want never seemed to go away. Sometimes I’d give in to it and lift a watch or a book, which gave [him] no end of glee.” It’s a quick hop from stealing to joining a gang doing holdups, which sets Lurie on the path that will, after a long journey, bring him to Arizona.
He gets there, however improbably, on a camel.
As in her first book, Obreht brings an exotic animal into a world where it shouldn’t exist, yet it does. The camel is taken from the true story of the Camel Corps, an idea hatched by Southern politicians, which went sideways during and after the Civil War. In “Inland,” Lurie falls in with the camels and their cameleers, becoming one himself.
While Lurie wanders, Nora is tied to the land. Capable and flinty, she pings from one domestic crisis to the next: Her boy is worried about the tracks of a monster (which resemble those of a camel); the water house has been broken into; the sheriff comes to visit; and the teenager, who holds séances, faints when she’s clearing brush, claiming a ghost visited her. “No doubt he will reappear the first instant she is tasked with something more arduous than sewing,” Nora says wryly.
Despite being a realist and a skeptic, Nora secretly keeps up a running conversation with the ghost of her daughter, who died of heatstroke when they were new arrivals. The daughter, as sassy as her mother, is an ephemeral being ingrained into their home, something that Nora can’t admit to anyone but that binds her to the place indelibly.
Both Lurie and Nora introduce us to a rich cast of characters along the way. Nora’s husband, her best friend and the local doctor spring to life as she details their struggles and strife in town. But because she manages the challenge of surviving in the desert by holding tight to her emotions, some of her stories are buried in layers of denial.
Lurie is more open, an adventurer with a romantic, poetic eye. Spotting a row of ghosts by a church graveyard, he explains, “There were dozens. I saw them flicker into being as the last of the day faded: kids, peering over the bluff, bright as falling stars.”
Traveling further into America’s deserts with the cameleers, Lurie gets closer to himself. The lead man is called Hi Jolly, a mangling of his Muslim name. Lurie, an Eastern European immigrant with Muslim roots, was orphaned in New York and had his identity effaced and remade. He learns from Hi Jolly not just how to manage a camel but how to pray.
Whether with the Camel Corps or striking out with the camel on his own, Lurie keeps moving because of his bandit past. A relentless marshal pursues him seeking justice, chasing him from town to far-flung town. This tired Western trope is livened up by the lawman’s name — John Berger, same as the British novelist and art critic responsible for the landmark BBC series “Ways of Seeing.”
The cliché of the superhumanly persistent lawman demonstrates how hard it can be to work within the mythologies of the American West. What is the best way to write about settling a land that was not the empty expanse shown in old movies but home to Native Americans? Obreht has characters of multiple white ethnicities and Latinos — for all of them, the isolation of their Arizona town allows for acceptance and reinvention. Through their 1893 eyes, Native Americans were frightening and seldom-seen villains. But as it’s 2019, it’s unfortunate that among all the varied characters we meet in “Inland,” Native Americans don’t ever leave the periphery. It’s a missed opportunity.
At times, this sweeping story seems almost too big for even a writer of Obreht’s gifts. But it is saved by the camel and his rider Lurie, outsiders who can make a home no place other than the emptiest spaces of the West. Nora provides a difficult but necessary ballast as Lurie reverberates with the yearning of lost souls. At some point, all their wants become his own, the legacy he would pass on to any desert traveler.
Random House: 384 pp., $27
Kellogg is a former books editor of The Times. She lives in Alabama.