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A Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History [Kindle Edition]

Deanne Stillman
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (27 customer reviews)

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Book Description

North of Los Angeles - the studios, the beaches, Rodeo Drive - lies a sparsely populated region that comprises fully one half of Los Angeles County. Sprawling across 2200 miles, this shadow side of Los Angeles is in the high Mojave Desert. Known as the Antelope Valley, it's a terrain of savage dignity, a vast amphitheatre of startling wonders that put on a show as the megalopolis burrows northward into the region's last frontier. Ranchers, cowboys, dreamers, dropouts, bikers, hikers, and felons have settled here - those who have chosen solitude over the trappings of contemporary life or simply have nowhere else to go. But in recent years their lives have been encroached upon by the creeping spread of subdivisions, funded by the once easy money of subprime America. McMansions - many empty now - gradually replaced Joshua trees; the desert - America's escape hatch - began to vanish as it became home to a latter-day exodus of pilgrims.

It is against the backdrop of these two competing visions of land and space that Donald Kueck - a desert hermit who loved animals and hated civilization - took his last stand, gunning down beloved deputy sheriff Steven Sorensen when he approached his trailer at high noon on a scorching summer day. As the sound of rifle fire echoed across the Mojave, Kueck took off into the desert he knew so well, kicking off the biggest manhunt in modern California history until he was finally killed in a Wagnerian firestorm under a full moon as nuns at a nearby convent watched and prayed.

This manhunt was the subject of a widely praised article by Deanne Stillman, first published in Rolling Stone, a finalist for a PEN Center USA journalism award, and included in the anthology Best American Crime Writing 2006. In Desert Reckoning she continues her desert beat and uses Kueck’s story as a point of departure to further explore our relationship to place and the wars that are playing out on our homeland. In addition, Stillman also delves into the hidden history of Los Angeles County, and traces the paths of two men on a collision course that could only end in the modern Wild West. Why did a brilliant, self-taught rocket scientist who just wanted to be left alone go off the rails when a cop showed up? What role did the California prison system play in this drama? What happens to people when the American dream is stripped away? And what is it like for the men who are sworn to protect and serve?

Editorial Reviews


Gayle Brandeis, Los Angeles Review of Books
"One of the greatest gifts of this book is how Deanne Stillman is able to open our hearts to people we might otherwise judge or dismiss...One can’t help but be filled with gratitude and awe toward Deanne Stillman — her clear eye, the depth of her research, her brave and compassionate imagination. She takes us on a journey as full of desolation and grandeur as the desert itself."
Rolling Stone
"A must-read for the summer."

Larry Cox, King Features Syndicate
“Few writers capture the rhythm and brutality of the American Southwest quite like Deanne Stillman….[a] fascinating new book….Stillman writes with such clarity, insight, and exquisite detail, one feels the chap of the heat and inhospitality of the desert on each page.  Simply put, this is crime reporting at its very best and by an author [who] is at the top of her game.  Meticulously researched, beautifully written, Desert Reckoning is a true achievement and a modern masterpiece.”
Jon Shumaker, Tucson Weekly
“[The Mojave Desert] now has its own poet laureate in Deanne Stillman….[Desert Reckoning] is the most powerful and important writing about the place and its denizens since Mary Austin’s classic The Land of Little Rain….The dark tale she returns with is one of aching heartbreak and haunting beauty. It is about the terror and beauty of the GreatAmerican Desert, and of the shadowy landscape of the human soul….This fiery-hot mosaic of the book sizzles from its opening pages. Its finely drawn characters and taut narrative emerge from the ancient deserts of our dreams and make real our fears.  Deanne Stillman is a literary shaman who has conjured a violent and potent vision of our disturbing life and times—a vision without judgment, but filled with empathy and wonder. This is not natural history, nor is it true crime. It is something entirely new that Stillman has created from deep within the sun-blasted heart of the American dream.”
Tom Lutz, LA Review of Books on KCRW
“Stillman is a great writer, and one of the few who fully capture the sparse culture [of] our California deserts….She has enormous sympathy for everyone involved, and yet never lapses into sentimentality or melodrama.  The text rocks along like a good novel.”
David Steinberg, Albuquerque Journal
Desert Reckoning is a compelling literary work.”
Joseph Barbato, Red Weather Review
Desert Reckoning is an evocative, richly textured narrative that places the reader squarely amid the ranchers, outlaw bikers, and dropouts who eke out an existence in the unforgiving heat and isolation of the Mojave Desert….Desert Reckoning is written in lovely lyrical prose. It renders beautifully the lives of the lost and marginalized souls who take refuge in the desert.”
Colleen O'Connor, Denver Post
“[C]ritically acclaimed writer Deanne Stillman weaves an eloquent elegy of strange and twisted characters….A talented writer of literary nonfiction, Stillman writes beautifully about the Mojave, and once again makes it a character in the story.”
Jeffrey St. Clair, Counterpunch
“This a real life desert noir written in prose as taut as Raymond Chandler….Stillman’s book reads like a thriller.”
Rob Hardy, Commercial Dispatch
“Stillman has a novelist’s flair for colorful explanation.”
Kevin Roderick, LA Observed
“A page turner.”
Anneli Rufus, Stuck blog of Psychology Today
“It’s all too rare these days that a book keeps me awake at night, racing through its pages yet not wanting it to end—but that’s what happened with Desert Reckoning.
Nancy Rommelmann, The Oregonian
" the voice writing about the Mojave Desert, a place where serenity and violence wrestle for domination unto eternity."
Shelf Awareness
“With a reporter’s eye for detail, a novelist’s sense of pace and no fear of inserting her own voice into the action, Deanne Stillman takes us through the history of Kueck’s deranged anger and the massive effort to take him down….When the smoke clears, we are left only with Stillman’s vivid images of cold violence in the hot wilderness of an American desert.”
Susan Salter Reynolds, Los Angeles Magazine
“Mysterious and terrifying.”
Kirkus Reviews
“[V]ibrant….[Stillman] does an admirable job building a full portrait of this beleaguered landscape….The result is lyrical and intense….A dynamic synthesis of Western saga, true-crime thriller and California-based transformation narrative.”
Publishers Weekly
“Stillman explores, with exquisite detail, the broken families and failed strivings of her two protagonists….Stillman skillfully excavates the vividly drawn landscape to reveal the desert’s mystical spirit and history of human striving….Through the lens of a griping true crime story, this beautifully written, humane book preserves the history of a remarkable and very American place and its people.”
Alex Espinoza, author of Still Water Saints
“Deanne Stillman’s Desert Reckoning is a modern-day corrido, a protest ballad of lost lives and broken dreams set in the vast Mojave, one of California’s most delicate and volatile regions, a too-often-forgotten landscape beyond the surf, the stars, and the palm trees. The rhythms, beats, and chords of Stillman’s writing—brutal, haunting, and heartbreaking—bear witness to the lives of lonely hermits and desperate tweakers, outlaw bikers and tenacious cops, in prose that shimmers and aches so beautifully that it splits your soul and shakes loose your skin, leaving you speechless and yearning for more and more. With this book, Deanne Stillman proves once again why she is one of the most powerful chroniclers of the modern American West.”
D. J. Waldie, author of Notes from Los Angeles: Where We Are Now
“Deanne Stillman does for the ‘lonely heart’ of the desert behind Los Angeles what Raymond Chandler did for the shabby glamour of the city’s garden suburbs. You can hear dreams being broken in every sentence of Desert Reckoning. In Stillman’s propulsive, often hallucinatory account, a brutal crime and its strange aftermath expose the terrors and beauties that still inhabit the empty places that lie at the end the city’s freeways.”
James Brown, author of The Los Angeles Diaries, and This River
Desert Reckoning is a major achievement. Fusing truth with the insight of a talented novelist’s imagination, Deanne Stillman has created a masterpiece of empathy and understanding for those so often least afforded it. Nothing here is simply rendered. Stillman’s vision of society’s outcasts, the lost souls who take their final stand in the badlands of California’s deserts, demonstrates a remarkable sense of humanity and compassion. I haven’t read something this good, and so beautifully written, in a long, long time.”
Gustavo Arellano, author of Orange County and the syndicated column, ¡Ask a Mexican!
“Deanne Stillman is the Raymond Chandler of the New West, a hell of a writer who leaves no cacti unturned, no long-dried gulch unexamined, and no abandoned settlement left be in her latest gritty, implausible-yet-too-real story. The tale told in Desert Reckoning will quickly join the same vein of Western anti-hero epics such as Willie Boy and Tiburcio Vasquez.”
Norm Stamper, Seattle Chief of Police (retired) and author of Breaking Rank
“Deanne Stillman’s meticulously researched book takes us behind the scenes of real police work and into the hearts and minds of two men. In her spellbinding account of the murder and the massive manhunt, she leaves no doubt as to the consequences of how we raise our children, particularly our sons.”
Jo-Ann Mapson, author of Finding Casey and Solomon’...

About the Author

Deanne Stillman is a widely published, critically acclaimed writer.  Her books include Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, a Los Angeles Times "Best Book 2008," and winner of the California Book Award silver medal for nonfiction, and Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave, a Los Angeles Times "Best Book 2001" which Hunter Thompson called "A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer."  Now a cult classic, it's out in a new, updated edition with a foreword by T. Jefferson Parker and preface by Charles Bowden.  Desert Reckoning is based on her Rolling Stone article, "Mojave Manhunt," a finalist for a PEN journalism award.  She writes the "Letter from the West" column for and is a member of the core faculty at the UC-Riverside-Palm Desert Low Residency MFA Creative Writing Program.

Product Details

  • File Size: 778 KB
  • Print Length: 322 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1568586086
  • Publisher: Nation Books (July 3, 2012)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services, Inc.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B0080K3P40
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #434,462 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Customer Reviews

3.4 out of 5 stars
3.4 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Article expanded into a book July 18, 2012
By Dan
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
The author has expanded her "Rolling Stone" article about a cop killed in the Mojave Desert into a book.

To accomplish this, there is some florid writing. For me, the book succeeds more as a portrait of a small town in Los Angeles County a decade ago than as a murder mystery.

The book bounces around tremendously on the time frame--can jump back or forwards 10 years. This is not uncommon and, as always, I advocate a chronological approach as easier on the reader.

Still, all in all, a pretty good read.

The major exception I have is her documentation as to where the alleged killer was during the week he evaded capture. She cites rumors that he hid out in a massive network of tunnels under the desert. But although the author sat in the killer's home, she apparently never wandered out back and attempted to verify the reality of those tunnels. Some evidence on that issue--whether for or against the rumors--would have vastly strengthened the book.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars I Reckon This Book Is Good Enough... June 10, 2013
The author of this book has done some research, but there are some very flagrant flaws in facts she presents to the readers. On page 15-16 she mentions that "The army had helped....fierce battles of Sante Fe..." Historians know that Sante Fe fell without any serious firefight, at all, during the Mexican-American War! She seriously confuses the details of that war.

On page 64, "the perimeter of Edwards Air Force Base, launching pad for the space shuttle"... When? Never!!! The space shuttle LANDED there on many occasions, but never was launched from there!

Page 88, "Over time, his gerrymandered way of living...." NO! She should have used the term jury-rigged.

Page 117--1/3 of the way down the page, "...two centuries later..." She should have written "decades".

Page 151-152--Her "desert survival-water needs/skills" discussion is ludicrous. These are all over the top comments; very unrealistic!

Page 178--"That Ken Kesey wrote about in the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test....." You should probably let Tom Wolfe know about that. HE was the author of that particular book that, yes, spoke about Ken to some extent, but Tom wrote the book.

Ms. Stillman tries to write a riveting tale about the essence of the wacky and wonderful Wild West in the near and now, but reader be forewarned that you might be misled by some of the fraudulent storyline. If you're looking for a dramatic non-fiction masterpiece that also addresses the dynamics of the New West check out Last Rampage by James Clarke. An older story from the late 1970s, but is a gripping, horrific, and intimately researched masterpiece.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Deadly Desert Weirdness July 17, 2012
The Joshua tree, a type of yucca, lives only around the Mohave Desert. The blasted sands and triple-digit temperatures enable this peculiar plant to thrive where almost nothing else will. Deserts are a place for oddities like the Joshua tree, and a refuge for peculiar people who cannot flourish elsewhere, and the Mohave is a haven for "a strange brew of loners, outlaws, ultralight pilots, people hunkered in compounds behind KKK signs, meth cookers and asthmatics, those who crave quiet, and serious desert freaks who work hard at blue-collar jobs and out here where land is cheap live like kings." That's from _Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History_ (Nation Books) by Deanne Stillman. The author originally wrote a story on this theme for _Rolling Stone_, and has expanded it here, making the Mojave something more than just a setting, as she did in her previous true-crime book _Twentynine Palms_. Stillman lives in Los Angeles, and it is strange to think that there is a desert so close to Tinseltown, but a big part of the story here is the town's outward march, and ostensible civilizing influence, into regions where civilization may simply not belong.

Except for law enforcement and the military, Stillman writes that the Mojave is the most heavily armed region in the country. The inhabitants there in their desert bunkers are fond of their rights, "quoting the Second Amendment and search-and-seizure law like scripture, but in the end always destroyed by that American urge to go out like Custer." Donald Kueck was born in Alabama in 1950 to a family steeped in law enforcement and military service. Kueck, however, went out to Southern California in the hippie wave, married, had a son, and then disappeared into the desert.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping October 28, 2012
The murder story is compelling on its own, but Desert Reckoning is so much more than a true-crime thriller. Stillman creates a fascinating portrait of the hinterlands surrounding L.A. and their diverse inhabitants. Although the in-depth reporting on seemingly peripheral characters can begin to feel excessive, it's worth it and adds up to an unbelievably moving and powerful climax. I get chills just thinking about it. Whatever you do, don't stop before the afterward (notes on writing this book), it's perhaps more chilling than any other part.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Literary Look at the Desert October 23, 2012
I've read several of Stillman's books. This might be my favorite! I've been curious about the Mojave since desert road trips with my parents. I didn't stare out the window thinking that the Mojave was boring. I was fascinated by its mystery. Desert Reckoning fills in some of the blanks. I wouldn't have a clue about the happenings that Stillman describes, without her bothering to do the research. I'm grateful for her take on the differing violent aspects of life in the Mojave.

I love her psychological grasp of the characters. This requires a certain amount of living, much insight, and a mature, non-judgemental evaluation of human nature. Especially I enjoy her lyrical writing. Only a passionate observer of the physical as well as human landscape could promote a passion in the reader to know more. A certain discernment in the reader will reward with a deeper journey. There are layers of the mystical here.

Finally, I would compare Stillman's story to my favorite TV show, Criminal Minds. The two share a richness of script and variety of thought that is out of the ordinary. Plenty of the psychological thriller, of course! In fact, I hope Ms. Stillman's agent has worked on getting the show's attention. I would like to SEE Desert Reckoning, also.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars A Drug-warped Life; A Manhunt
Saturday, August 2, 2003, dawned another blazingly hot summer day in the Antelope Valley. At noon, for reasons known only to himself, Deputy Sheriff Steve Sorensen, on his day... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Burton Falk
1.0 out of 5 stars Sorry - she is not an excellent writer. Very much disliked her writing...
Sorry - she is not an excellent writer.
Very much disliked her writing skills.
Too much wandering and not enough of the straight facts. Read more
Published 7 months ago by Mrs. Charlene E. Myers
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read!
Quite a good book. I have a penchant for murder/mayhem true crime stories, and this one fits perfectly. Read more
Published 9 months ago by Tom Williams, Anchorage, Alaska
3.0 out of 5 stars Bone Dry
Sometimes magazine articles are transformed into outstanding full-length books. "Desert Reckoning," which Deanne Stillman initially wrote as an article for Rolling Stone, isn't one... Read more
Published 15 months ago by Jack de L.A.
3.0 out of 5 stars A very odd book....
Not quite sociological current-events nonfiction, not quite about a police manhunt, not quite about the odd Mojave "fringe" culture of dropouts and freaks, this book comes... Read more
Published 17 months ago by P. Childers
5.0 out of 5 stars one of my favorite places in the world
I read avidly anything about the Mojave Desert, one of my favorite places in the world. This one concerns the area I think of as the "near Mojave," the westernmost part of... Read more
Published 17 months ago by Gary
5.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating story of the "near" Mojave Desert
I read avidly anything about the Mojave Desert, one of my favorite places in the world. Ms. Stillman's book accurately creates the locale of what I think of as the "near... Read more
Published 17 months ago by Gary
3.0 out of 5 stars An interesting narrative for those who are familiar with the incident.
This narrative provides considerable inside detail about the large manhunt for the fugitive, and its final conclusion, and a lot of in-depth background information about many of... Read more
Published 20 months ago by R. Chase
1.0 out of 5 stars A giant run-on sentence
I was looking forward to reading this story, but could only get through a few pages on my Kindle before calling it quits. Read more
Published 23 months ago by musiclvr
5.0 out of 5 stars Stillman good writer
Excellent book. Stillman is a very good writer. Gives the back ground of the characters involved and makes them come to life.
Published 24 months ago by Colleen Brown
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