In her 1985 book, Desert Passages: Encounters with the American Deserts, historian Patricia Nelson Limerick pondered the reactions to the desert from people such as Mark Twain, explorer and surveyor John C. Frémont, irrigation promoter William Ellsworth Smythe, and art historian John Van Dyke. In her introduction she writes, “While the actual landscape is of considerable importance in this story, the intellectual focus rests on the different appearance and meaning available to different viewers.”
That passage could describe the running theme of Rubén Martínez’s riveting new book, Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West (Metropolitan Books). “The notion of the desert as a spiritual and healing place,” Martínez writes, “or Native land, or cowboy cool, or the big Empty—all these are supported by structures of feeling, by human history, by contradiction and desire.”
In Desert America, Martínez—an Emmy Award-winning journalist and a poet, and holder of the Fletcher Jones Chair in Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymount—allows his gaze to roam over the contemporary Southwest, including Joshua Tree in California, northern New Mexico, Marfa, Texas, and Arizona’s Tohono O’odham reservation. As he seeks differing interpretations of the American West in the 21st century, he deftly contextualizes the stories of “outsiders” and “locals” and their relationships to place—whether that’s the ritzy art scene in Marfa or a drug-plagued village in northern New Mexico. Along the way Martínez asks, “Who belongs here and who doesn’t?”
Wading into the economic, cultural, political, and racial divides of the new Southwest—and offering perceptive musings on how art, literature, history, and film create a framework for the idea of the mythic West—Martínez who is in search of traces of the authentic. Along the way he examines gentrification and the resulting displacement of local populations and how America’s recent economic turbulence has affected the region. “The story of the great American boom of the 2000s and its culmination in the Great Recession is told well as a Western,” Martínez explains.
We talked to Martínez in-depth via email about Desert America and its potent mix of reportage and memoir, and about the region the book attempts to gain a broader understanding of.
ZYZZYVA: Growing up as a boy in Los Angeles you formed your own “idea of the West.” How did popular culture, especially films and literature, infuse your vision of the West?
Ruben Martínez: I grew up in Hollywood’—literally on the edge of the actual place, within a few hundred yards of the locations of some of the earliest motion picture studios. My father worked at a print shop in the heart of Hollywood “stripping” negatives (as they said in the pre-digital days) for movie posters. My father was a huge film buff; he took me to revival houses to see the films of his youth—World War II flicks and Westerns. And of course in the late Sixties and early Seventies the TV was constantly on at home as well—the Marlboro Man and “Bonanza” and the occasional John Ford movie.
The intensity of Hollywood is how its representations rival and shape reality—the overlap, as it were, of reel and the real. The screened image took up plenty of space in our house, but the printed word wasn’t far behind. My mother is a poet and on the bookshelves were volumes of Neruda and Garcia Lorca, novels by Carlos Fuentes and Gabriel García Márquez. I grew up on the border between the screen of pop culture and serious literature and the idea of the writerly vocation. All this set up the way I would imagine the West, which I experienced both in TV and film and on our regular family vacations into the actual place. The tension between these imagined and lived spaces became kinetic for me when I took up residence in the desert for almost a decade beginning in the late 1990s.