Rubén Martínez explores desert life in America

ruben-martinez-lmu.jpgMartínez, the writing professor at Loyola Marymount University, lived for a time beside the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico, searching for truth and meaning and the guidance to break his drug habit. He also alit in Joshua Tree and Marfa, Texas, and came back with a book that Hector Tobar describes as "his deeply moving and insightful account of his years searching for redemption and renewal far from L.A., in the sun-baked communities of 'the new old west.'" From the LA Times review of "Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New 'New West'" in Sunday's paper:

Americans think of its open spaces as a blank page where any loser or dreamer can rewrite his or her life story.

At each of his stops, however, Martínez probes the local history and quickly discovers how wrong-headed that thinking is. "Desert America" is a memoir that also manages to be an excellent work of reportage. Its main subject is the resilient people who populate the West's harshest landscapes.

In the semi-rural subdivisions near Joshua Tree, Martínez encounters military families, hard drinkers and poor working people. All sorts of weird things happen: for example, a casting call for locals to play Iraqi villagers in a simulated battle at the nearby Marine base. The locals like the weirdness, their down-and-out bars, their pickup trucks and their anonymity.

When Martínez and his fellow bohemians arrive, they bring a real estate boom in their wake. More real estate booms follow Martínez to New Mexico and Texas. "And everywhere the boom arrived," he writes, "it erased the stories and the people that stood in the way."

Also excerpted: "Midnight Allley," a second Ash Levine mystery by former LA Times staff writer Miles Corwin. His lead character is an LAPD detective who lives in Downtown.

It was sunny downtown, one of those rare smogless days when the San Gabriel Mountains were clearly etched against a powder-blue sky. But as I zigzagged west on the Santa Monica Freeway, I encountered a fine mist that thickened as I neared the ocean. When I pulled up in front of Winfield's mother's house, the fog fluttered above the treetops and the air was brackish. I cut the engine and sat in the car for a few minutes. The breakup of my marriage didn't convince me to leave homicide, but one too many death notifications might. This was the part of the job I most hated.

My old mentor, Bud Carducci, had a theory that every cop has a preordained limit of murders. When the detective reached his limit, when he simply could not tolerate another senseless death — then he had to leave homicide. I hadn't reached that limit yet, but I felt I was getting close. During my years at South Bureau Homicide, it seemed like I was doing several notifications a week. When I finally was promoted to Felony Special I was greatly relieved — partly because my caseload was lighter, but also because there would be fewer times I'd have to deliver the four most devastating words I knew — Your son is dead.

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