So, to follow up and tie a bow on my trip out to the desert, I didn’t bring back any scorpions or hantavirus with me. But I did bring back four LA/deserty books! And they were all fantastic.
David Ulin’s The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Faith and Reason: Of course, scardey cat that I am, I waited until I was back on my home turf in the East coast to read about earthquakes and how the denizens of California deal with it. Going into the book, I was a person who knew next to nothing about earthquakes and how effectively (or ineffectively) we’re able to predict when/where they will strike. So imagine my alarm, control-freak that I am, when I found that we still suck at predicting earthquakes and that so many people are still drawn to pseudo-science and predicting earthquakes by headache or cloud shape. Ulin and scientists argue that part of the reason why predicting earthquakes is so difficult is that geological time/age is so vast and dwarfs our own time, it’s seemingly impossible to set our clocks to run together. Get it? Well, David explains it much better than I do. And, even better, he doesn’t explain everything. I was drawn to David’s sense of wonder in the face of disaster, in the face of the infinite. Ultimately, we don’t know if we’re ever safe, but that’s okay too.
Mark Haskell Smith’s Moist: I don’t know if there’s another writer who’s quite like Mark. Having read Salty and Baked, Mark’s novels manage to be very funny, yet dark, gritty, and oftentimes, uncomfortable at the same time. Moist’s hero is Bob, who works at a LA pathology lab. A severed arm (though no body) arrives in the lab, and Bob falls in love with one of the arm’s erotic tattoos. Or, he falls in love with the tattoo woman. From there the wild plot spins off into dealings with the Mexican Mafia, a masturbation coach with a gun fetish, a luxury car with a nightmarish alarm system (in which, Mark uses Checkov’s gun to nasty perfection), with a whole host of wild, funny, and at times, heartbreaking characters. Moist is a funny, ribald, smart, dark, and an expertly plotted crime novel that really can only be compared to Mark’s other very fine novels. So there you go. Read ’em all.
Rob Roberge’s Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life: This is a short, gut-punch of a collection of stories about down-and-outers. Fans of the short fiction of Donald Ray Pollock and Craig Davidson must read this book of stories mainly set in the southwest. Hell, fans of excellent, dark short fiction should read this book. Rob is a lean, mean stylist who doesn’t scrimp on the important details and doesn’t blink or look away from the warts on his characters; and the result is as oddly beautiful as it is disturbing. Favorite stories include “The Exterminator” (a story about a purposefully inept pest exterminator and his existential crisis while battling a rat in a bathroom); “Love and Hope and Sex and Dreams” (a man on disability, with one dead arm, trying to salvage his marriage and his life); and the awe inspiring “Burn Ward,” which is essentially a conversation between two members of a burn ward, one of whom will be leaving soon, one who won’t, that is as heartbreaking as they come.
Tod Golderber’s Other Resort Cities: Like Rob’s collection, Tod’s stories also take place in the southwest and concern themselves with forgotten, damaged characters. Tod mixes more humor with the pathos, but never at the expense of his characters, who are complex and real and treated with dignity. Empathy is the lofty goal in these stories, and he succeeds. (Other Resort Cities has a blurb from Daniel Woodrell that’s well-earned and apt.) Favorite stories include “Mitzvah” (a former wiseguy from Chicago is getting sick of hiding out near Vegas, while pretending to be a rabbi. Funny, disturbing, and touching) and “Granite City” (the old sheriff finds a family buried in the snow and hacked to pieces, and instead of the who-dunnit-thriller approach, Tod builds a creeping, quiet story about grief. The two heartbreaking stars of the collection–“Palm Springs” and “Other Resort Cities”–concern the same charcters: Tania (a forty-year-old cocktail waitress with enough regret and recrimination to fill a lake basin) and her spontaneous decision to adopt a 12 year old girl from Russian, Natalya.