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Juan Flores Rides, and Falls, Again: Deanne Stillman's Desert Reckoning

I swear this heat is messing with my sleep, so that when I woke at four the other morning it was as if the accumulated bodily discomfort of the previous day's scorching here in Modjeska Canyon had stuck around, morphing into some kind of itchy psycho-emotional discontent, a near-existential nervous affliction. I gave in, made coffee, paced, couldn't settle down, write, even think, so I read. It's usually a palliative, though in my choice of material, ironically, if found myself in an even darker and more spooky place than my restless angst. Yet the opening chapter of Deanne Stillman's newest noir journalistic meditation cum regional history of our nearby doomed desert hinterlands brought things into focus, first distracting me and then opening up via its reliable (from the excellent Stillman) clarity, energy and seductive prose a path to appreciating the wider ecology, of fate, fear and un-forgiveness. I read till daylight, fully transported and engaged, and thought later that perhaps the elements had conspired to give me exactly the kind of perverse wake-up call, as it were, I had perhaps needed.
And, in the dawn, I took a gander out my window at Juan Flores Peak on the other side of the canyonthe iconic if historically unreliable and geologically totally unimpressive escarpment where the legendary bandit was, we are told, captured. Apocryphal or not, this promontory is reputed to be the exact spot of violence and violence arrested, but of course it is also the easy psychic landmark where good and evil meet in the Orange County imagination. It's the prompt for the murderous trope that the rural and wild-living locals here like, and a tale retold by Stillman--not gratuitously, for once (!)--but actually toward contextualizing or explaining that her more recent story of outlaw madness and anti-social is, somehow, not so new.

Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History (some subtitle!) is based on, developed from Stillman's 2005 Rolling Stone magazine piece "The Great Mojave Manhunt," for which she won acclaim and awards, the story of--yes--the culture of weirdness, gun and drug violence and psycho-geographic organized social apocalypse that seems to have led a wigged-out loser with a gun to murder the lone lawman of the eastern Antelope Valley. It happened near the ruins of the legendary doomed Socialist commune Llano del Rio, the town of Lake Los Angeles, Edwards Air Force Base and hundreds of square miles of desolation, heat and beauty, a national sacrifice zone or paradise--you choose.  

Murdered in Mojave
Murdered in Mojave
You will perhaps remember the article, or the murder and manhunt, the killing of Deputy Sheriff Stephen Sorensen by one Donald Kueck. Each arrives out of the Central Casting that is growing up in Southern California and, no, Stillman does not really have a lot more in the way of facts, evidence to figure out how and why both men ended up so very dead. The "reckoning" here is more ambitious, in a couple of ways. First, it's a chance for readers to be further inculcated in the Mojave. Second, it seems to be Stillman's own effort to speculate, construct, make sense of where to put this tragic and, ultimately, inexplicable violence. Lucky for fans of noir - Beat - rock'n'roll - gonzo - poetic first-person journalism, she spins gold out of straw, assuming you are willing (I was) to go along with her on the head-trip flights of fancy that allow her to travel, teach, digress and keep us suspended in disbelief, agitated and charmed and on edge through a journey across time, space, killer desert and the hypothetical. Indeed, digressions, "what ifs," and alternative scenarios make up most of this "investigation," which is to say that Stillman chases Juan Flores, lizards, Bob's Big Boy and a likely mythic network of 
underground tunnels in the desert where hide out any number of "meth freaks, drifters and grim pilgrims." Or do they? She asks a lot of questions, priming us for something more than a crazy hermit, ex-con, druggie madman who, almost predictably, let loose with a rifle on an ex-surfer LA County Sheriff who'd done his best for law and order and also to advocate for civil rights and community welfare in a pretty unlikely burg. 

Stillman is the author of two previous books which look at what I think they call the underbelly, the dark side, which is to say a variety of tough-guy truth.  Her Twentynine Palms : A True Story of Murder, Marines and the Mojave and Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West established her creds as a regional reporter and seer. I  assume she wouldn't mind comparison to Joan Didion and Raymond Chandler, existential tough-gal and tough-guy respectively, prose stylists whose big, braggadocious insistence on ambiguity confound and delight and call attention to landscape and shadow and what you either see or which is a trick of the light.  About the actual manhunt and investigation, she writes, "Members of law enforcement do not do gray," which is fine because Gray is where she lives, forced to deal, on the one hand, with what she digs up of what pass for facts--like the episode of violence which sent Kueck to jail--and, on the other, creating dozens of fictional if totally probable-seeming scenarios elaborating on the coincidental, likely, and downright spooky: the encounter ten years before the murder between the criminal and the cop. The grudge. The impossible fixation. 

Stillman's description is precise in its confident appreciation of the desert yet also exaggerated in its hyper-urgent and purposefully overstated tone. Antelope Valley is famous for child abuse and for California poppies. What are you gonna do?  It's possible Stillman's kind of writing makes people nervous, as if you are about to get a blackjack to the back of your skull while you make the mistake of admiring the glorious desert sunset. It amounts to needing to trust her, her infectious confidence, authorial power-trance, autonomy of imagination.  I honestly don't read enough contemporary crime fiction to know, but beyond Chandler, people who do tell me this is in the very best of So Cal's Michael Connelly and Gary Phillips, those wacky Scandinavians, and the Mexican anarchist Paco Ignacio Taibo III
 

And, yes, place. The Mojave, a geography of poverty, militarism, tweakers and guns galore, but of course exactly the rugged beauty and freedom which the Live Free or Die types go for, the environmentalists cherish, the bombers and fighter planes and Stealth and Space Shuttle fly over fast, where corrupt realtors run Section 8 Housing scams, illegal immigrants do the shit work, and you can still find scavengers, collectors, runaways, dreamers and a handy place for target practice...with semi-automatic weapons. Some fun!

It's fair to point out in Reckoning what in different rhetorical circumstances might be seen or felt as purple prose, but this writing is purple, blue, black, in short, a bruise.  Or worse, a hematoma.  Yet Stillman's wishful dark thinking and writing is so much better than not thinking at all, settling for "senseless" and for forgetting.  She is haunted, and to her credit can't, won't, wouldn't, give up the ghost on this ghost story. And my sense is that because you will so like and trust the writer Deanne Stillman you will go along for the ride. 

"There comes a time during the course of a story, if you work on it long enough, that information you hadn't expected comes your way. You might have wanted something along the same lines, and possibly had even tried in various ways to get it, whatever 'it' was, yet try as you might, it is not to be had, and that's all there is to it. And then one day, things fall into place or you say something that makes someone think of the thing you had been wanting to know for years, only they didn't know you wanted to know it, and there you are, at one more fork in the road."

And the people who tell her things? Wild and violent and self-destructive. Fuck-ups, junkies, 

gun nuts, rebels without a cause. Self-hating, cast out, drugged out, wasted in the sense of humans who might have, under different circumstances, had or been something more. And, yes, also a noble dead cop, cool nuns, brave detectives, old girlfriends, and a cast of missing Mojave characters through time, among them the founder of Llano del Rio, founded in 1914 by activist-attorney-visionary Job Harriman. And other characters, from Kurt Cobain to Sheriff Lee Baca to Donald DeFreeze, all residents, in some wider sense, of the Valley of Antelopes as re-created by an author with a big, bigger, biggest story to share: her own, as a witness to and interpreter of an episode that casts a long shadow on modern California history.

Mr. Bib's Ayn Rand Dispatch #1: It's been a good week for those who, like Mr. Bib, can't get enough of the difficult yet ever-so-satisfying work of responding to the so-called Objectivists and other cultists of the Patron Saint of Selfishness. No surprise that the likely GOP Vice-Presidential candidate recommends one of the most despicable hucksters ever to write dumb books. He is the new big "intellectual" power behind conservatism, a man of "ideas" in the tradition of David Stockman, Newt Gingrich, Pat Buchanan! Too much fun.

Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff,  a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History, Deanne Stillman, Nation Books, 320 pps., $26.

Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.

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