JULY 23, 2018
ACID WEST IS a bit of a chameleon: it changes its color and character from one sort of book to another, depending on how one encounters it. Or, to be truer to the book’s setting, this is a New Mexico whiptail of a book. The official reptile of New Mexico, the whiptail lizard is a fascinating creature. At White Sands National Monument, just outside Alamogordo, whiptails have changed their color in the blink of an evolutionary eye. Once darker, they have lightened and whitened in a mere 10,000 years — as long as the sand dunes have been piling up — so as to better escape sharp-eyed predators. It is an amazing adaptation. Marvelous, too, is whiptail reproduction. Whiptails are an all-female reptile clan: they reproduce by parthenogenesis. Because they engage in mating rituals with one another as a way to stimulate ovulation, whiptails have been referred to as the “leaping lesbian lizards.”
I digress. But New Mexico invites digression, expects it, even demands it. It is some kind of place. And this is some kind of book. From its title to the glare of its cover art, Acid West is a fluorescent collection of nonfiction essays. It shimmers with the characters, history, and culture of Southern New Mexico, from whence its author hails. Joshua Wheeler says he had to move away in order to see his home in a way intriguing or confusing enough to want to write about, as both native and expat (he teaches writing now at LSU). What we get in this, his first book, is a brilliant portrait of a place and a people, a millennial’s travelogue written with enviable verve and erudition.
The title invites comparison with Hunter S. Thompson, as does the rapid-fire prose, the ear for quirky dialogue, the strangeness of a landscape sore and battered. A kind of Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, maybe. Like Thompson, Wheeler knows that the West, and perhaps especially this lower half of New Mexico, is good to think with. The eccentric stories just sit there, in the desert, in high relief, almost as if waiting for a writer as talented as this one. Wheeler knows when to play the first-person card of the old New Journalism, and he knows when to back off. He’s very good at scene-setting, which makes him very good at history-telling. It’s clear that Wheeler has thought long and hard about the truth and consequences of the past. It goes without saying that the going gets weird at times.
This is not foodie New Mexico, not Ansel Adams’s New Mexico, or Georgia O’Keeffe’s, or Mabel Dodge Luhan’s. This is Southern New Mexico: SNM to those who love and hate it, those who are formed, scarred, and made of and by it. This is the SNM of mining and ranching and itinerant wanderings across the centuries: missionaries, conquistadors, Apaches, railroad workers, speculators, UFO chasers. This is the SNM of atomic tests and atomic science, of radioactive wounds deep in living things. This is the SNM of Roswell and space aliens, and of evil deeds done by those who, depraved and desperate, might as well have come from outer space. This is the SNM of people who just scrape by day after day after day. This is home to the town once known as Hot Springs, which — with a bold, odd stroke — voted to change its name in 1950 to match a well-known radio program called Truth or Consequences. The place is today colloquially known as T or C. All places have their dialects and linguistic codes, their insider acronyms and shorthand. Joshua Wheeler speaks the language.
But that’s where the shape-shifting and color-changing kick in. For just as we begin to peg this book as a rerun of Hunter S. Thompson, the ghost of Edward Abbey pops up, and Acid West suddenly evokes Desert Solitaire (1968) and Confessions of a Barbarian (1986), especially in its insistence on the relationship between observation and stewardship — of the land and its human and nonhuman inhabitants. Wheeler’s book moves fast — it is made up of more than a dozen long-form essays — but we’d be missing a big facet of its contribution if we consign it to the genre of hipster MFA reportage.
No, the book goes deeper than that. Wheeler is inventive in his jumping-off points, taking up topics that become doors to something else without hitch or hiccup. A fascination with Mark Twain becomes a way to write about memory, consciousness, purpose, existentialism. Video games and video-gamers mesh with space fanatics or extreme-sports daredevils strapped to this or that gravity-busting contraption. Reality is constantly dissected, faceted, questioned via the lives and deaths of SNM natives and passers-through. We drift south across the border, near Juárez, to an asylum made of cinder blocks that is presided over a man named El Pastor. “He became El Pastor by trying to kill one,” Wheeler laconically observes.
Mark Twain shares pages with John Wayne, and both make way for various members of the author’s family, for his ancestors, friends, and ex-girlfriends, as well as for an array of killers and dreamers, winners, losers, and some that just never had much of a chance. As the 19th-century gave way to the 20th, a man named Jim Green pulled a water wagon through Alamogordo, the barrels spraying water onto the streets and the kids; thus did he make a name for himself. That name changed the day he stood beside the town’s water ditch “and held his straight razor for a long moment in his hands,” before adding his own blood to the Alamogordo irrigation system. “Tell the ghost story, college boy,” Wheeler’s summertime construction mates insist. Explain why the water is haunted and one has to drink it slowly or go insane.
Another prominent influence on these essays, I would argue, is Bernard DeVoto. Champion of public lands, crusading historian of the West, DeVoto wrote many important pieces on conservation and on Western history and culture, most of them issuing from his perch in Harper’s “Easy Chair” (a column he wrote monthly for 20 years). By our contemporary reckoning, DeVoto fell hard for the triumphalist romance of western expansion across his beloved Rockies, but there’s so much more to his work than that imperialist echo. A brilliant thinker and stylist, DeVoto wrote a different kind of exploration narrative, illuminating place and highlighting environmental vulnerabilities. How I would love to have Joshua Wheeler contemplate and comment on the notion of DeVoto as a progenitor of Acid West.
One more frame suggests itself as a way to approach this book: the theme of civil religion. Acid West is peppered with faith, the yen and the comfort of it. Generally Christian, with other traditions sprinkled in, this devotional subtext helps move these essays along, even as the people within them pause to wonder, worry, and pray. Wheeler is a new Joshua guiding us through a different Canaan, but one no less shot through by belief and ritual, no less shaped by fear and power. The author’s grandmother pauses while shelling pecans to ask her silver-tongued grandson to give her eulogy when she’s gone, paying a bribe by way of the $20 bill rubber-banded tight around the obituary she’s already written. Remind people of this and that, she insists, remind them “how hard I worked to keep Alamogordo beautiful.” She does this every few months, “sweetening the pot year after decaying year because the one thing she knows for sure is that she wants the decay edited out.” SNM is a land of the quick and the dead, and we hear from them all in this sweet homily of a book.
I must admit that I did not much like the chapter-by-chapter epigraphic flourishes that put a religious stamp on things — e.g., “in the year of our Lord 2014-15,” or some such. They seem unnecessary, a note of unsubtlety in an otherwise subtle, supple book. That said, they do help sustain a tone of yearning and an engagement with deep histories, a hope for some sort of redemption amid all that tough environment. There’s a reason the book begins at the edge of Purgatory (Canyon), after all.
This debut collection is a powerful statement about home and homecoming, made all the more impressive when home is half of a big state. The author carried me along with his eye and his prose, carried me to the people, the places, the sunlight, the history, the pain, the crimes, the oddities, and the grace. This is an auspicious debut by a new voice of the American Southwest. Joshua Wheeler has written a book worth reading more than once, a book that makes me very much want to read his next one.