Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Desert Prose

By Ernie Longmire

MARCH 16, 1998: 

Alex Shoumatoff's Legends of the American Desert

I've spent my entire life in the Southwest, and my fascination with the region never seems to end. There's lots to admire in the spirit of the people--both native and acculturated--who choose to live in such an outwardly inhospitable and desolate place. The open spaces call to one somehow. Some of us find that the wide expanses of the desert renew our energy rather than draw it away.

It's apparently not an unusual feeling. Author Alex Shoumatoff, who (the jacket blurbs by locally noted literary types like John Nichols and Tony Hillerman assure me) is widely respected in the fields of travel writing, sociology and being generally eclectic and urbane, has managed to capture this mood and illuminate the Southwest's fascinating pull on people with some of the most readable work I've laid eyes on in two decades of reading about the subject. Throughout the book, Shoumatoff dispenses great washes of affable and engaging prose that flow over the reader's brain like a moist breeze from an August thunderhead. While he often takes a roundabout route to get to where he's going, he's skilled enough that the trip is always thoroughly enjoyable.

Legends is neither a travelogue nor a strict history of the region but a cultural portrait that takes on elements of both. Over the past decade or so, Shoumatoff has lived in parts of and journeyed through the rest of what he calls the "Greater Southwest"--which for the purposes of this book consists primarily of Old Mexico, New Mexico, Arizona and slices of neighboring territory here and there as needed. In that time, he's collected a huge mojo bag of anecdotes from which he draws deeply to illustrate the observations he makes on the region's native and not-so-native cultures. In order to give the book some structure, the area's history is presented in a roughly chronological order, but there are plenty of side trips to keep things inter esting. The story of the earliest local human habitations is illuminated with an examination of modern-day controversies about who, when and where the early inhabitants were; Jesuit attempts to draw Mexico's Tarahumara Indians into the net of Spanish cultural assimilation are contrasted against the Tarahumara's symbiotic modern-day relationship with the marijuana- and opium-growing traficantes who now overrun their native Sierra Madre.

Shoumatoff illustrates the way in which the Southwest breeds and attracts loners and individualists: people who want to escape, who are hiding from the law, each other or sometimes themselves. An awful lot of folks seem to be running out into the desert, drawn away from civilization--or even just what passes for it out here--by the promise of riches or solitude or the chance to define themselves rather than being defined by others. The Spanish hidalgos who made up the bulk of Coronado's ill-fated expedition into El Norte came here to escape their inheritanceless lives in Spain; the Mormons settled here at the conclusion of a long flight from religious persecution; the coneheads of Los Alamos came here to escape the scrutiny of the rest of the world while they designed their Gadget. Those who've survived the travails that our environment brings to daily life here have managed to carve out a space for themselves here merely by continuing to exist.

There are also other, less gritty stories to tell. Amarillo native Stanley Marsh spends his time (and a small portion of his substantial income from his natural gas fields) half-burying Cadillacs nose deep into the ground at a pitch that echoes the angles of Egypt's Great Pyramid. Late author William S. Burroughs whiles away his late teenage years on the Hill at the pre-Manhattan Project Los Alamos Ranch School. The Spanish Duke of Verugas, Christopher Columbus XXII, pays a visit to the Duke City and spends much of his time being yelled at in Castillian by the duchess. Hundreds of other characters, past and present, make their influence known.

As a trip to just about any local bookstore proves, there's no shortage of people out there trying to make a dent in the literary world by writing about the Southwest. Most of them are handily outclassed by this volume, which in its rambling way manages to beautifully crystallize the soul of the region in prose form. (Knopf, $30, cloth)


Alex Shoumatoff will receive the Regional Book Award for fiction this Saturday at La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe. Call (800) 752-0249 for details.


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