Reading my way around the USA has always been a goal of mine but I do find myself drawn to particular regions more than others- the Deep South, the Southwest, West Coast and Hawaii being my current obsessions. To this end, here are some recommendations for books with a strong sense of place- a quality that is vital for me as a reader and something all these authors excel at. From the soon to be published to old favourites, I hope you will find something to transport you, wherever you may live.
‘The Never Open Desert Diner’ by James Anderson (Caravel books- to be published Feb 2015)
James Anderson divides his time between the Four Corners region of the American South West and the Pacific North West and is well placed to showcase Utah as a setting in his first novel, The Never Open Desert Diner, with its shades of Lit-Noir. Reminiscent of TC Boyle’s ‘The Tortilla Curtain’ (reviewed below) in its strong, sparse characters, Anderson uses place as character itself, from the sunbleached and parched desert that bursts into life after the rains, flash flooded arroyos that first appear safe and then kill with mud, stone and water and a spectrum of light not seen anywhere else. Anderson rewards the patience of his readers with a slowly unfurling insight into his characters and their lives and the ways in which they coexist with the might of their surroundings. This novel is haunting, well woven and accomplished.
The initial unfamiliarity of the desert is reflected in the taciturn nature of Ben, a trucker come delivery driver; a lone wolf operator in a nation of large transportation companies. His route is Highway 117 where he delivers goods to those who live along it, and for various reasons choose to live as off grid as possible. From farm machinery to butter brickle ice cream (never has ice cream sounded so tempting as Anderson makes it!), Ben barely makes a living but more lucrative work elsewhere incites guilt in a man all too aware of the service he provides and of his own need to live as semi detached a life as is possible. This part of Utah is sparsely populated, with miles of desert stretching out along both sides of the tracks, towns and settlements rising up out of the dust and then falling away again as do the telegraph poles that carry power to only the most accessible areas.
As he drives along, he notices an archway leading down into an abandoned housing development, goes to explore it and ends up spying on Claire who is playing her cello, alone in her home. His rule to give a wide berth to married women fleeing their husbands is put to the test. As the story unfolds we meet a cast of characters who all have their secrets- secrets they only give up when the choice to keep them is no longer there. Ben must wrestle with impending bankruptcy, a desert environment hostile to those who fail to respect its dangers and a forty year old crime with repercussions for all.
Encounters with the seventeen year old pregnant daughter of a past lover, a Christian traveller dragging his literal cross along the highway and the elderly, forbidding owner of the Never Open Diner show the softer side of Ben. Like the desert, you will break through his reserves if you persevere. By making Ben a trucker, Anderson dips into a powerful cultural image, that of the man without ties, maybe psychically wounded (there must be a reason for all that roaming), independent yet still following a well worn route and, in him, we find the modern day equivalent of the cowboy.This trucker sees a lot from his lofty position- he is an observer of the country he travels through and his transient nature means he can take on and shed responsibilities as he/she wishes. The essential tension then develops between his job and his human need to be known, be loved and to receive these back too.
‘The Tortilla Curtain’ by T C Boyle
Tackling middle-class values, illegal immigration, xenophobia, poverty, the American Dream and entitlement, TC Boyle’s prose is as spiky, muscular and mysterious as the cacti that populate his corner of the world. The title refers to both the physical wall, or border, between Mexico and the United States and the cultural wall or division between the people of these two nations and between the classes in the United States, no matter their colour or race. Backdrop to this is the unforgiving west in all its sparse beauty. Boyle’s descriptions of the desert are poetic and realistic- once again we see the unforgiving nature that goes hand in hand with the sparse beauty of this landscape.
Two couples: Delaney and Kyra Mossbacher, a white upper-middle class liberal couple who live in a gated community on the outskirts of Los Angeles; and Cándido and America Rincón, two Mexican illegal immigrants in desperate search of work, food and shelter are brought into intimate contact after a car accident and their opposing worlds gradually intersect in what becomes a tragicomedy filled with error and misunderstanding. The contrasts between the poor and rich are stark: Delaney’s wife, Kyra, is so afraid that her dogs will be eaten by wild coyotes that she orders an 8-foot high fence to protect them, while America, destitute and living in the shelter of a canyon, has no money to seek the medical aid she needs during her pregnancy. As the story unfolds we are left to wonder what ‘wild animals’ the fencing and life of privilege is designed to keep out. The flight of the monied white classes from Los Angeles has led to an urban sprawl into the wilds of the Santa Monica and San Gabriel mountains especially and the creation of a hybrid eco state where “wild” and “urban” butt heads- they do not meld. As we see in the behaviour of coyotes (and in our own British urban foxes) wildlife becomes more urban while humans become more feral.
The hollowness of the American Dream is painfully filleted- as Lou Reed once said “Give me your poor, your tired, your hungry. I’ll piss on ’em” and desperation is criminalized whilst the term ‘illegal alien’ is depicted in all its literalness and metaphor. The book may be over twenty years old but the recent release of statistics showing the huge increase in children attempting to cross the border from Mexico into the USA means this story, sadly, is still relevant.
The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver
Human struggle, a resourceful and moral instant mother and against a backdrop of Native American culture, Taylor Greer, grew up in poor in rural Kentucky trying to avoid pregnancy and heads west with high hopes and a barely working car. By the time she arrives in Tucson, she has encountered and taken responsibility for a child, coming to terms with both motherhood and the need to put down roots both personally and culturally.
Taylor lives in a community of women who tend to live their lives independently of men yet nonetheless we see the shared burden of femaleness in Taylors first comments about Turtle. When she sees the little girl she says that the burden of being born a woman had already affected her.Turtle is both real child and symbol of women in general, all of whom face difficulties because of their gender.
Two of the greatest influences in The Bean Trees are the the Sanctuary movement, designed to help Central Americans flee oppressive governmental regimes and relocate — usually unlawfully and secretly— in the United States and the Cherokee Trail of Tears – the route the Cherokee Nation was forced to make when it was moved to the Oklahoma territory from the southeastern United States. Serving as backdrop to the book, the journey of baby Turtle and Tailor from Oklahoma to Arizona, many of the novel’s characters are members of the Sanctuary movement. Respect for the land is depicted as inherent within the Native American population and their vulnerability is equated with that of the environment- both will be hunted and destroyed if they fail to find quarter or sanctuary.
The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar
Tobar is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist for the LA Times and has written extensively about the Latino experience in Los Angeles and the United States generally. Tobar knows Los Angeles, its nail bars, the hipsters in Silver Lake and high end sushi bars in generic roadside malls, the tract houses and sprawling estates on bluffs overlooking the Pacific. In this second novel, he returns to the issues dividing Southern California- race, class, immigration and economics.
If you are a parent, you will have one of two reactions to this story: (1) I can see how this might happen or (2) these are terrible parents who don’t deserve children. Whichever it might be, this tale has at its heart a ruptured, strained marriage and the drudgery of paid domestic servitude by immigrant workers- Pepe who maintains the lushly designed garden whose installation catalyses the argument between the couple and Araceli who is then housekeeper of the lushly equipped house with its expensive toys and ornate decor. This garden with its banana palms and ferns and mini stream is an incongruous botanical anomaly in arid Southern California, dependent upon Pepe’s ministrations. Artifice in a city of artifice in a house on a street with an overwrought and inauthentic Spanish name- Paseo Linda Bonita means beautiful pretty street. Not so good they named it twice, either.
The Torres-Thompson family lives in a fabulous hilltop home with ocean views on Paseo Linda Bonita in Orange County. Middle class and seemingly affluent, Maureen and Scott are hit by the recession meaning they have to dispense with all their staff apart from Araceli who finds herself in charge when after an argument, Maureen and Scott leave the home. They both assume the other remains at home in charge of the children. After four days without hearing from either parent, Araceli takes the children in search of their grandfather in a distant LA suburb. When the parents return to an empty house they panic – police helicopters are dispatched and borders closed and we meet a wide and varied cast of characters as the mistake becomes public.
Misunderstandings both situational and linguistic lie at the heart of this black and bleak tragi comedy from the title which reflects both the nurture of plants and children (both chores often performed by paid immigrant staff) to the odd, bilingual concoction” of the Torres-Thompson surname. We have a Mexican grandfather who refuses to speak Spanish and an indocumentada who does not speak Spanish very well. We also have Spanish left untranslated so the reader is left to experience the frustration and helplessness experienced by people living far from their native lands trying to make the best of a difficult situation.