Great American Desert
By Terese Svoboda
Ohio State Press, 2019
Terese Svoboda opens her 18th book Great American Desert with an epigraph that reminds readers that many of the greatest civilizations are now desert wastelands–and that the West is itself a desert. As someone who lives as far west on the Contiguous United States as you can, I expected to encounter stories within this collection set in the fruit orchards of California or the rivers of Montana or the rock formations of New Mexico, where so many westerns are set. But not all books about the West are westerns, and some books about the West are set in the Great Plains.
Trying to pinpoint what qualifies as the West, I turned to this description of the region found in the Encyclopedia Britannica: “Virtually every part of the United States except the Eastern Seaboard has been ‘the West’ at some point in American history, linked in popular imagination with the last frontier of American settlement. But especially it is that vast stretch of plain, mountains, and desert west of the Mississippi that has loomed so large in American folklore.”
The opening story of a collection often sets the tone for the rest of the book, and “Camp Clovis” does that with its tight, poetic language and harsh depiction of the early West. In the story, young boys are sent to stand guard over plants that bloom near their village. It’s obvious from moment one that Svoboda is a poet. Every sentence bursts with imagery and unconventional turns of phrase.
Maybe the plants come from the moon—look at the lines across the leaves, all ridged, says an old man. Everybody checks out the moon but few see a resemblance. They rip up a plant or two and inspect its root for moon-ishness and then burn it—ah, the scent, the promise of dream.
The story is told in a collective we, never differentiating by name who is talking among the boys. It turns the story into a representation of the collection: Svoboda is going to tell all the stories of the West, this band of dreamers who keep pushing farther across the great American desert in search of something more. The boys of “Camp Clovis” live separately from their families in their own hierarchal microcosm of civilization, untouched by everything until they realize too much time has passed and nobody is coming for the plants. They return to a devastated village and find that their lives will never be the same. This is true for many of the characters in the collection. What happens to the land–whether it’s dumping chemical waste or bombs–affects the people.
The stories span hundreds of years of settling the West. “Settling” is a gentle euphemism for what happened during the westward expansion. The second story, “Major Long Talks to His Horse,” rattles with that understanding. The white settlers speak matter-of-factly about their destruction of native people. Major Long, a cartographer whose naming of the land “Great American Desert” is responsible for the collection’s title, also sets the tone for the brutish white men in these stories who see the people here before them as mere obstacles to their wealth and destinies. “Surely what he meant was: Stay away from our gold. Anyway, that’s what the military before him heard. Although no one had turned up much gold to justify all the torturing that so exhausted the soldiers,” Major Long reflects, his concern over the act of torture coming across like a banal complaint about his job.
A stand-out story of the collection’s first half, “Bomb Jockey,” traces the courtship of a couple during WWII. They are separated by class—Margaret is the college educated daughter of a politician and Hump is a good ‘ole boy from a small town—but united by their pacifism towards the war. He’s gotten himself out of fighting and into the arguably more dangerous role as the titular bomb jockey. The night he travels across the state to woo her at a fancy party thrown for her and the other Miss Dakota contestants, he finds that she lost the pageant after coming out against the war during the question portion of the competition.
Svoboda fleshes out fully formed characters, both the protagonists and their family and friends who populate the small town during wartime setting, so that the reader feels connected to their story. I found myself holding my breath when Margaret early on finds that she is pregnant and her whole world may abruptly change due to the unwanted pregnancy. The story could have taken a sentimental turn, which stories looking back on another era often do, but Svoboda infuses it with humor and compelling plot turns to keep it from being predictable or treacly: Margaret loses the baby; they break up for a time while she’s in college. “Bomb Jockey” is longer than many of the others in the collection, having first appeared in One Story, a journal highlighting longform short stories. Because of its length, the reader has more time to invest in the main characters’ lives.
Throughout the collection, Svoboda blends violence and humor like Cormac McCarthy’s ruthless westerns. I find McCarthy to be the standard for good books about the West, somebody who can acknowledge the idealism of the region and marry that with its grotesque realities of conquering and slaughter. Like McCarthy, Svoboda rejects the usage of quotation marks, a choice I always find risky as it can add a layer of confusion to a story and cause the reader to double back to understand who is talking. It’s also bold and assertive to present chunks of dialogue without qualifiers, a grammatical choice that seems to mirror the sparse and aggressive landscape of the desert.
This collection is one of frontiers, restless souls seeking answers in each other and from the land. To name your collection Great American Desert is to firmly declare the setting as an important character, and the land often is named–South Dakota, Nebraska–when many characters are not. Characters interact with the land as a spring of hope and a destructive force. The stories within Great American Desert are infused with a sense of dread, the wasteland waiting beneath the surface of the promised land.
- A Review of Terese Svoboda’s Great American Desert - May 7, 2020