Wednesday, August 5, 2020

RIP, Newspaperman Pete Hamill: A Taste of His Work from Tom Miller's 'Revenge of the Saguaro'

Posted By on Wed, Aug 5, 2020 at 2:58 PM

Pete Hamill, a journalist, novelist, essayist, editor and educator, died today at age 85. Hamill was a longtime New York City columnist whose byline appeared in the Daily News, New York Post, Village Voice, Newsday and many others. His novels include Forever and Snow in August. He was NYC through and through.

Hamill penned the introduction to Tucson author Tom Miller's collection of essays and articles Revenge of the Saguaro. The Weekly is reprinting it with the kind permission of Miller in Hamell's honor.

Tom Miller found his way west from Washhington, D.C. during the late 1960s, that time in America when revolt was in the air along with a demand for renewal, both fueled by the music of rebellion. Young Americans were saying a collective No to the war in Vietnam. Parents were rejected, the suburbs were rejected, racism was rejected.

But that immense No also contained a very large Yes. The young, Miller among them, were trying very hard to make something new—that is, to establish values and social codes that were more humane, more open, more free. They talked about new ways of living. They started communes. They talked about the land. Some of it was foolish, much of it was adolescent, but a lot of it was touching and real.

The Yes played itself out in the American West. The East came to symbolize decay: physical decay, the collapse of industry and cities, the end of the immigrant myth. The migration into open places was an American migration, with millions of Americans leaving one version of the country and going to another. Tom Miller embraced the borderlands of the Southwest, as if sensing that his own subject matter lay in the buried templates of that beautiful, empty region that had once been Mexico.

He started writing for alternative newspapers, the many weeklies that grew up in the era in homage to—or imitation of—New York’s Village Voice. Those newspapers defined themselves by attitude and tone. They made no pretensions to an impossible objectivity; that was a time, after all, for choosing sides. But they intensely covered those subjects that got scant (or clumsy, or baffled) coverage in the mainstream press: the anti-war movement, drugs, racism, feminism, music, and the people who lived on the margins of the so-called American dream.

Miller was somewhat different; he embraced the subject matter without adopting the furious tone. He was too good a reporter and too fair a man to fall easily into glib ideological ranting, substituting rhetoric for seeing. He loved the Southwest because of what it was, instead of what it was not. But he wasn’t a booster out of the chamber of commerce either. He loved the border towns, from which Mexico had never departed, and celebrated their disorder and danger and tawdriness. He loved the austere pleasures of life in the desert. He loved places like Bisbee, the site of so many heartbreaking nights in the struggle to establish unions. And he wrote about those places with affection for the people who shared his own visions.

Later, when many of the young grew up and had children and moved on, Tom Miller remained in Arizona. He never accused those who gave up their youthful visions of selling out, that most terrible of 1960s sins. Too many of his contemporaries, shaped by the glancing power of television, learned only enough about a place to leave it. Miller was not so easily satisfied. He kept going around, as Murray Kempton once defined reporting, and learning something new, and writing it down. This book is about some of his discoveries.

On the surface, Miller’s discoveries are not about what James Joyce once called “all those big words that get us in so much trouble.” He can tell us about the origins of the song “La Bamba” and the creation of the chimichanga. He can find something worth knowing about the beginnings of paintings on black velvet and the obscure history of the bola tie. He can express his admiration for the late Edward Abbey, understand the man’s rage and desire for desert solitaire, but he never embraces the worst of Abbey, who struck many people as insufferably self-righteous.

Miller can wander through the desolation of Mexico’s Pinacate volcanic fields, traversed by hungry Mexicans heading for El Norte and drug smugglers working for big scores, and make you pray that nobody else decides to follow his reporter’s path and the desert is left alone. He can also suggest the innate tragedy of a murder that crosses American generations in an American city north of the border. There is humor in Miller’s writing, and sadness, and an occasional triumph. All those qualities can be found in the story of a lordly 125-year-old, 3,000-pound saguaro cactus that stood in the desert north of Phoenix, shot down by a drunken, beer-wrecked American bum who wanted target practice. The lout kills the great plant, but in a marvelous ending reminiscent of 10,000 Westerns, the plant gets its revenge.

In all of his work, here in this book and elsewhere, Miller has one other admirable quality: he refuses the fashionable. You will not hear him delivering sermons about globalization. You will not find him gripping crystals and facing some magical mountain, while aging white ladies chant New Age mantras. There is too much fun in the world for such nonsense, and besides, New Age culture can’t be embraced by anyone with a sense of irony. Miller’s ironies are reasonably gentle, and never savage. Anger over the spoiling of the land underlies much of his work, as it should anger any Americans who love beauty. But he always makes clear that his anger is not the subject. The place is. The place of beauty.

I did my own glancing year in the American Southwest, and learned what Billy the Kid never lived long enough to learn: I was shaped by cities, by noise and traffic and a thousand small daily collisions, and it was in cities that I belonged. That is, in my own city of New York, my native place. I live about seven blocks from the area that was once called the Five Points (now covered with Federal buildings and courthouses) and from which Patrick Henry McCarty began his journey into American myth. But the Southwest is alive within me, too, put there by movies and photographs and paintings, and by long drives under the naked moon. And I’m as possessive of it as anyone who lives there. I want to know that it actually exists, that there is a piece of my country where men talk to coyotes and paint on black velvet, and that if I feel the need, I can go to it the way I go to the Metropolitan Museum.

The idea of that distant place is not the exclusive property of those who live there. It belongs to me, too; it belongs to every American, including all those who might never pass through its austere amazements. In his work, Tom Miller has brought the region to life in his own special way, without donning the grouchy costume of what used to be called a “regional” writer. He is not defensive; he is celebratory. He helps us all see beyond the ancient pulp fictions to the dailiness of life in that American place and in doing so, he adds to its reality and magic. We should all thank him.

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