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Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West Hardcover – August 7, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


“It's hard to imagine a more engaging and illuminating chronicle of the contemporary West.… A nuanced, conflicted, poetic meditation on an endlessly elusive subject.” ―San Francisco Chronicle

“Deeply moving and insightful… A memoir that also manages to be an excellent work of reportage… Martínez treats all the people he writes about, and the places where they live, with the kind of profound respect all too rare among the legions of Western writers who have preceded him. The result is an emotional and intellectually astute portrait of communities long neglected and misunderstood by American literature.” ―Los Angeles Times

“A compelling and daring book, one filled with equal parts confession, history, and politics… This book will challenge every idea you may have formed about life and death in our western deserts.” ―Los Angeles Review of Books

“Unflinching… A sensitive, intricate perspective on the boom and bust cycle that characterizes the dry landscape of the American Southwest.” ―NBC Latino

“A savage journey into terror, cacti, drugs, desperation and all-around anomie in the superheated atmosphere of the desert Southwest… A necessary chronicle of a weird corner of America.” ―Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Martínez offers reportage beyond the simple binaries of the immigration issue or the drug war. He delivers a lively, compassionate intervention into our collective conception of the Southwest… This thoughtful and well-written account intimately explores the convolutions of racism and class conflict that have come to define a divided America.” ―Publishers Weekly

“After burn-outs in LA and Mexico City, Martínez flees to the desert in the hope that fierce, simplifying landscapes will cure his urban addictions. But he quickly discovers that the desert, far from a bohemian alternative, is actually the crisis of working-class American life reframed in the starkest existential terms. At this crossroads, where other writers would have surrendered to the darkness, Martínez instead looks toward the light. While the narrative is always honest and hard-headed, no book that I've read in the last twenty years has inspired so much genuine hope for the future of the West.” ―Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums

“Desert America is an uninsulated wire running through the hard-bitten, right-now, rough-edged Southwest, a land still being born. Go ahead and grab hold: first comes shock--maybe of recognition, maybe alarm--then you keep buzzing for page after electric page. You can't let go.” ―William deBuys, author of A Great Aridness and River of Traps

“Most people experience the desert by car―they drive, stop to get gas, drive on, and after a while, they don’t see it anymore. Now the big plan is to cover the desert with solar panels and in ten years or less, it will all be gone, just like that. Maybe then, Rubén Martínez’s testament will be as close as you can get to the living feel of this beautiful land. After reading, I bet you’ll want to drive out there and take a look. But you better hurry.” ―Ry Cooder, guitarist, singer, composer, and author of Los Angeles Stories

Desert America is a thorough, heartfelt, must-read for anyone investigating the West's state of economic and spiritual shambles.” ―Ana Castillo, author of The Guardians

“Rubén Martínez offers a vision of the mythic West, complete with cowboys and drug mules, vistas and tract developments. But the desert sand under Martínez is constantly shifting, and his writing is fluid enough to capture this shift--he knows that all he can seek is the idea of the West.” ―Nick Flynn, author of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

“Rubén Martínez comes at his topics through side doors. He surprises. The result here is a disturbing and moving book. Searing, erudite, evocative, gritty, and funny are not adjectives I often apply to a single book, but there are few writers as singular as Martínez.” ―Richard White, author of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America

About the Author

Rubén Martínez, an Emmy-winning journalist and poet, is the author of Crossing Over and The New Americans. He lives in Los Angeles, where he holds the Fletcher Jones Chair in Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymount University.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Metropolitan Books; 1st Edition, 1st Printing edition (August 7, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0805079777
  • ISBN-13: 978-0805079777
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 1.2 x 9.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #993,899 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 17 people found the following review helpful By Red Chile on September 1, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The author tells the story of a place I live currently, Northern New Mexico, and places I am fascinated by-Mex City, Marfa and Joshua Tree with solid, beautiful writing for which I am deeply thankful for as a reader. He described my Albuquerque as "a provincial way station set between a mountain and a mesa, bisected by the Rio Grande and its verdant 'bosque.' Truth! Until this, I had not imagined ABQ in this way. It is provincial beyond description... And Ruben goes on to add "...New Mexico, to me, was a place where difference became desire." That difference for so many of us from other places is described in this one passage as the most truth about relocating here as I've ever read. The gift of Mr. Martinez's own desire for difference is ours as his readers.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Hazel on October 21, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Like the author, I've also crisscrossed the West--mostly small towns in California, New Mexico, South Texas. In each of these places I've witnessed the beauty and devastation this book describes. I live "back east" now and I am continually amazed at how little my eastern friends know--or even care to know--about this part of our country. This book helps us understand how the West and its troubles--poverty, immigration, addiction, environmental damage, land grabs and foreclosures--are not just the problems of "westerners" but are among the most pressing problems of America. It forces us to look beyond the great big sky and instead look more closely at what is happening on the ground.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By P. watson on September 28, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Well-written personal history of the the Southwestern states of the U.S. Rueben Martinez is an excellent writer-historian professor who only gets better with each book. He writes a personal history of his love of the desert and his experiences there. Also, he recounts the tragedy of 'the wall' and the Sonora Desert where immigrants who want and need work die without water. His personal stories of the people he meets who are willing to risk arrest to bring the 'illegals' water is heartbreaking. (Can humans struggling to work really be 'illegal aliens' is the question.) Also, the history of competitions between different groups fighting to stay dominant and to settle the west is delineated here. The story of those who Indians, Spanish and 'gringos' descended from the land grants from Spain is also told. You will be fascinated throughout. This is a great and fascinating read for those historians among us Californians and those of the Western states.
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25 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Michael J Anderson on January 5, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The topic of this book, the modern American West going through repetitive economic boom and bust cycle, intrigued me enough to order it on Living just outside of Santa Fe, I was curious to know more about Martinez's experience in the remote region of the Southern Rockies, where artists, writers and moviemakers have migrated for almost 100 years.

I sort of liked this guy's basic writing style, even though the book does not flow well. To say it is disjointed is an understatment.

The core of the story takes place in tiny Velarde, New Mexico. Using a Tolkienesque blueprint, and perhaps inspired by too many viewings of "The Milagro Beanfield War", Martinez's outdated populist mythology takes place in a mystical land. The "Hispanos" of Northern New Mexico would be the wise Elves, the illegal aliens from Mexico are the cute innocent Hobbits, the old woo woo tree hugging hippies from the 60s and 70s are Treebeard and his friends of the forest. The gringos from other places are the evil Orcs, ravishing the land and heartlessly destroying everything that is good. The Orcs drive up real estate prices and take advantage of the simple pastoral people who have lived in poverty for centuries. You get the picture.

Martinez also writes about his time in Twenty-Nine Palms located in the California high desert, a sandy hide-away for alienated eccentrics escaping the materialistic emptiness of Los Angeles (Martinez's home town.) Here the writer romanticizes the gypsy band of bohemians that drift in and out that historical desert community. Later on he makes friends with a an ex CEO one-percenter in the Big Bend region of West Texas.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Keith A. Faulconer on January 27, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I grew up in eastern San Diego County and throughout my childhood made numerous trips through many of the areas Ruben Martinez discusses. I now live in Albuquerque and spend my spare time exploring northern New Mexico. Reading "Desert America" sometimes gave me a nostalgic feeling of coming home and often provided perspectives and insights that enriched my understanding of our rich and torturous heritage here in the SW. Those who expect an economic treatise on "Boom and Bust" might be disappointed, but I found perusing the experiences and thoughtful observations in this book to be well worth it.
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It is unfortunate to have to give this book only two stars because its author is clearly an accomplished writer as evidenced by his sentence construction, vocabulary and academic position at Loyola Marymount University. Unfortunately, the books reads as a disjointed narrative about the author's life in several places in the Western US including northern New Mexico, Joshua Tree and Los Angeles, California. Some of it even seems to be a bit of a 'recovery diary' as Mr. Martinez tells of his repeated struggles with drug addiction and his search for a perceived spiritual connections to his Salvadoran ethnic roots. The reader is left to ponder why he chose to go to Mexico City as part of this journey. A significant detractor from this book living up to its title (which is does not) is that Mr. Martinez makes no effort to disguise his socio-political views and takes every opportunity he can to state that people who enter the United States illegally are not really illegal. He always uses the term 'illegal' in quote and clearly sees the only real borders in the world to be those of race. In Mr. Martinez' New Mexico residence, he emphasizes there are three main racial groups, the Anglos, the Pueblos and the Hispanos (not to be confused with 'hispanics') who all live in northern New Mexico but none of those groups seem to mix well with others, nor does he see any of them as 'Mexican'. I will not take issue with this because I am not a resident of that region of the world but Mr. Martinez does give at least some acknowledgement of the bigotry that he and others faced for not being 'natives' of the area. I was disappointed that a book with a subtitle of 'Boom and Bust in the New Old West' had so little spent so little time on this subject.Read more ›
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