Judging the West

Arizona's near-omission and one militant essay spoil an otherwise impressive collection

Who'd have thought that in a collection of essays about the West, its front cover a photo of twinkle-lighted saguaros against a Sonoran Desert sunset, each chapter imprinted with our state prickler, you'd have to read 85 percent of the sucker before any saguaro--or Arizona, even--shows up? And then you read right past it to riparian ferns, and out the end of the book through Montana, Utah and West Texas brush.

OK, so it was probably some flora-ignorant kid in the art department of Nation Books back there in New York City who selected the graphics, but Arizona doesn't get much playing time in this game, and stealing our mascot is insult to injury.

We Westerners can get crotchety. As Connors demonstrates.

Philip Connors, a onetime baker, bartender, fire lookout, Wall Street Journal leisure and arts editor, and current New Mexico freelance writer, has assembled a group of essays he calls representative of today's West.

Connors chose 20 essays written by fiction writers and poets in the last 40 years; their concerns are environmental, cultural, political, spiritual. In the tradition of Lewis and Clark and John Wesley Powell, they write in personal narrative. There's little lyricism in this writing; it's marked by straightforward, unadorned prose, by an impulse to explain or argue, by voices peculiar to writer and place. Descriptions of nature are exacting and realistic. The political types wield phrases unrestrainedly--their diction slices; their tones range from mildly to scathingly ironic. The collection's organization expresses its own narrative: First, the Old West myth, then its redefinition, a rage, a search and finally a hint of redemption--if you're lucky.

After his introduction (written at a Gila Wilderness fire lookout), Connors begins with Larry McMurtry. The Lonesome Dove creator (and part-time Tucsonan) knows his Old West mythology: His eight uncles lived the "unrepentant horseman" life in West Texas. Then, railing from his Utah park ranger post, Edward Abbey calls for a ban on motorized vehicles in national parks. A level of indignation and PC has been set.

In the warmly humorous "Redneck Secrets," Montanan William Kittredge divides Westerners into two--bad rednecks and good rednecks. He confesses to once hankering after the life himself. He would "keep a journal, and spell bad, because in my heart, I would want to be a mountain man--'We luved aft the movee in the bak seet agin tonite.'" The themes of physical prowess, individuality and self-sufficiency have been established.

Others define the West by the relation of humans and animals to space--see Gretel Ehrlich's achingly beautiful piece on herding sheep in Wyoming and Wallace Stegner on the cultures migrating to the area.

"The Clan of One-Breasted Women," by Terry Tempest Williams, opens the rage section. An obedient, fifth-generation Utah Mormon, Williams could have taken the family's breast cancer as genetic bad luck had it not been that the family had been living downwind of the 1950s above-ground atomic testing. She doesn't stay obedient. Rebecca Solnit, in "Dust, or Erasing the Future: The Nevada Test Site," makes no pretext to obedience, as her essay opens with her at a protest.

Several of the essays deal with personal identity or spiritual quests. For some, authority rankles, just because it's authority.

Which brings us to a croaked canary. Deep in this collection is embedded one very disturbing essay, "The Militia in Me," by Denis Johnson. Johnson, a fiction writer who lives near Ruby Ridge, Idaho, has laid out a series of anecdotes in his essay that effectively overturned this reader's impression of the entire book. He describes falling in with followers of presidential hopeful Bo Gritz, of reading conspiracy books and listening to Christian-right radio alone in the woods, of associating Waco with martyrdom, and embracing two good Samaritans who announce that a free America must be "bought with blood."

Johnson's essay is an exploration of attitudes, but Connors included it, with its government paranoia and apocalyptic conclusion, as representative.

My problem with this collection began with saguaros on the cover. The West I know--which is not represented--manages to get along together. It has learned to accommodate with the wilderness, to acculturate, to celebrate difference and border and heritage. And we have writers to prove it. Maybe our "frontier" is too frontera-friendly. Maybe, in fact, we should corral essays from our Mairses, Sheltons, Broyleses, Bowdens, Kingsolvers, Millers and the slew of others, stick them together, and call it New West Reader II: The Saguaro Strikes Back.

Meanwhile--acknowledgement is in order--Connors' book does make you want to shut down the computer and pull on the hiking boots. Leaving the gun behind.