A few decades ago I spent a couple of hours in the Antelope Valley, up in the northern part of Los Angeles County. Those California counties seem as big as medium-sized European countries, and once you’re in the Antelope Valley it’s impossible to believe you’re only an hour or so from the glitz of L.A. I remember the place as windy and dusty and hot. Chris McCormick, in his first book, Desert Boys, a collection of tightly linked short stories, describes the small cities there as “shopping centers and tract homes” perched on a “biblical ecosystem lying beneath all that concrete.” The only image of the place that lingers in my mind is of a tattered plastic bag clinging to a Joshua tree, one of the oddest plants I’ve ever seen. One of the characters in McCormick’s book describes “the Joshua trees in the desert as dancers striking poses or deformed hands or barnacles–barnacles bunching from the smooth hull of a ship.” When I was there, I was looking for birds, but I don’t remember seeing any.
But that is one of the great pleasures for me of reading McCormick’s book–he knows the Antelope Valley, and he understands and loves the people who choose to stay there. Daley Kushner, the narrator-protagonist, wants out. He is smart and gay and has ambitions to write. He escapes to San Francisco, returning to the valley only reluctantly, terrified of introducing his partner to his Armenian mother. After her death he comes back to visit his father, a furniture salesman, and is pleasantly surprised to see “a surprising number of people” at a local production of “a modern, gay, Spanish adaptation of Romeo and Juliet titled Ramon y Julio.“
But other friends, the boys who came of age with Daley, choose to stay or hope to make their lives there. Robert Karinger, perhaps the most intriguing character in a book filled with some extraordinary ones, is Daley’s best friend, a poor kid from a single-parent home, with a hardworking and loving mother, and a little sister who gets the attention of the other boys. Though not Daley’s lover, Robert is clearly the first love of his life. He marries early, enlists, and dies in one of our desert wars. That loss, that emptiness, combines with the stark landscape to create the tone of Desert Boys.
Near the end of the book, Daley thinks, “When you spend a life leaving a place, only to return to it again and again, the returns become increasingly shameful.” It is that sense of shame that keeps this book from assuming the nostalgia that shapes so many stories of childhood. When Daley goes out into the desert, almost daring it to kill him, we know that he will survive, and we know that he will escape, even as he honors the people he has left behind, even as he teaches us that this dry and empty landscape can be loved. Chris McCormick’s great accomplishment in his first novel is that he is able to combine these places and emotions in deeply moving yet entirely unsentimental stories.
Chris McCormick is at Literati Bookstore on Wednesday, May 4.