I'm like Sam Stone of Indiana, another Amazon reviewer, who doesn't havce time to write a long review, but unlike Sam Stone, I'm just as glad there wasn't a novel to go with every one of these brilliant stories. I like some things short and concentrated.
Don Waters brings a refreshing moist breeze to the parched desert lands on which his characters crawl, like wounded scorpions, to a death predestined, nearly animating their paltry lives through clever plotting and some racy, colloquial dialogue. His sense of "scene" is just about perfect, and whenever you fear that he's allowing the tail of his shaggy dogs to wag the story, he brings it back to line with a sharp tug on the leash, often by pulling one more unexpected twist out of the character's copious prior lives--for it seems everyone comes to the desert to hide out, or die, whatever comes first and hurts the most.
Dan Buck is a obsessed, world famous athlete on the model of Lance Armstrong (except a runner), a man who pushes himself through his own version of Extreme Vanity. His first person narration eschews any trace of humility in his escalating war with his body and in the forbidden love he feels for another, perhaps less neurotic, Slavic runner, Vitus the Czech. It's sort of a Brokeback Mountain means Lawrence of Arabia approach, and it works with this material, since Dan Buck doesn't spare us any of the details of his celebrated life and Waters gets down every physical detail of his collapse, after what I imagine was some prodigious research effortlessly sifted into the character, like silk into water.
It's hard to find a decent human being among them, but Waters harbors a battered affection for them all, one he works hard to share with readers. One poor slob gets suckered into being a mule for seniors, smuggling their expensive medicines in from Mexico, bringing in more and more each time, a modernday Raoul Wallenberg with a streak of heroism in him that proves there's an exception to every rule. (In a parodic mirror of this story, another of Waters' protagonists, Geoff, makes money "scooting kids to proms." A cop pulls him over, notes that his DL has expired. "Yeah," Geoff replies, glumly. "By six years," the cop continues.) Good and bad shepherds, all stumble towards a distant star--perhaps only a neon simulacrum hung atop a casino.
The bleached out sinners of DESERT GOTHIC are a breed of their own, and while readers might do well to apply ten coats of moral sunscreen on all exposed areas of their skin, they will be glad they went down in Don Waters' fiery furnace. You'll be able to tell us desert rats, we've got the wild eyes and the weary, chafed wobble of the survivor.
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I read Desert Gothic when it first came out and it is one of the few books I have gone back to time and again. There are so many amazing stories here about my home state, its people, and its communities. Don is one of the best writers of Nevada and the American west, and this book is a shining example of that. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It's simply excellent.
Desert Gothic, winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award, is a book where the desert landscape is as big a character as the human characters are, an environment in which Waters can show (as author Amy Hempel says), "the small, heroic acts that reverberate in the lives of his characters and in the mind of a reader." In this collection, despite pain and weakness and even impending death, people (border crossers and ultra-marathoners and crematorium workers and more) do brave and moving things.
This is a wonderful collection, distinctive because of Waters's skillful, quiet prose. I say quiet because while there isn't lots of flashy, gratuitously adorned writing, the characters are complex, damaged, and dead-on precise, and the setting -- the starkly beautiful Southwest -- is always near, constant, like a buzzard waiting to swoop down and feast on the bones of these people. The "Gothic" of the title is appropriate because in many ways, Waters's stories and style are reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor, which is the highest praise I can think of. Really great book.
Desert Gothic is filled with characters that have real depth and volume, taking up space in the desert setting and in the readers' imaginations. Don Waters is adept at developing his cast members and hooking the reader in to find out what will happen next. I did not want each story to end and am looking forward to reading more by Mr. Waters in the future. I want to share more time in a world of his creation, with his masterful descriptions and unexpected twists.