THE COCKFIGHTS SAVED my life. At least it felt like it at the time. I had taken a high-speed solo road trip to Navojoa, Sonora, to see my then-girlfriend and her cancer-ridden son. Upon my arrival, I learned that the kid had taken a turn for the worse. After a sleepless night at her parents' house, I drove my girlfriend and her son to the hospital in Ciudad Obregón. Since she'd be staying with her estranged husband's family, I was on my own.
Over tacos de puerco and myriad swirling emotions, I remembered the hand-painted gallo I had spied on a sign back in Navojoa. That night, after a dozen or so beers, bets and dead birds, I was able to put the last few days in better perspective. And my winnings bought me a few happy nights in the cantinas of Alamos.
These memories--bloody and bittersweet--came rushing back to me while reading Tom Miller's fabulous new collection of reportage, Jack Ruby's Kitchen Sink: Offbeat Travels Through America's Southwest. A lively anthology of far-flung adventures, Kitchen Sink collects Miller at his best: exploring the truths and myths of the region, traipsing back and forth along la frontera, up to Santa Fe and down to Veracruz.
In a chapter titled "Death by Misadventure," Miller writes that compared to those in the States, "Mexican cockfights are livelier, bloodier, and more musical." He spends time with guys and gallos from the embattled Copper State Game Club, visits farms and attends fights, and, finally, loses "more money in a single day than I pledged to my public radio station all year."
From the fights, he ventures forth into other violent aspects of regional importance: the gun culture, the violence of human migration, nuclear testing, clashes of culture and lifestyle. Finally, he retells, refreshingly, that quintessential saga of Southwestern poetic justice, in which a drunk ex-con shooting up the countryside is killed by the victim of his violence--a giant saguaro. But these tales of faunacide and floracide are just the beginning; Miller's got a lot more traveling and writing to share with us.
In "Searching for the Heart of La Bamba," the author investigates the origins and impact of three songs that represent, in different ways, the heritage and temperament of the Southwest. First, he sates his "bambaddiction" by travelling to the song's home in Veracruz, Mexico. There, he traces its origins back to a place in West Africa (Mbamba) and maps its evolutionary journey through Veracruz's jarocho music, Richie Valens, Los Lobos and back, to a drunken villager's spontaneous and reverent a cappella rendition in a Veracruz cantina.
Then, in Clifton and Morenci, Ariz., he searches for the origins of Open Pit Mine, a minor classic of local significance. Finally, he visits Rosa's Cantina in El Paso, where he chases the ghost of Felina, heroine of the Marty Robbins classic.
At a Texas auction, Miller hopes to purchase "Jack Ruby's Kitchen Sink." After waiting patiently for the item to come up, he slips out to the local Dairy Queen and returns to find the sink sold. He settles for Ruby's can opener, which he buys for a buck. He attends an Arizona auction where Hitler's cars are up for grabs, then digs deep to exhume important and timely information about black velvet paintings, bola ties and chimichangas.
In other chapters, Miller visits northern Mexico's otherworldly Sierra del Pinacate, spends some time in a fire lookout tower with Ed Abbey and goes on a night raid with a polite gang of Tucson eco-terrorists. In New Mexico, he hangs with Sonia Braga on one film set, and with a gang of commie propagandists on another. He rides with the Border Patrol, visits Jews in jail and haunts Bisbee bookstores. Through it all, he exhibits a gentle, sometimes self-effacing sense of humor, and an ace reporter's eye for detail.
In addition to Miller's lively and lustrous writing, readers will enjoy the pleasant and non-intrusive foreword by the great Pete Hamill, some nice photos (including a few from present and former Tucsonans Dave Burckhalter and Elaine Querry), and a great Mexikitsch cover.
To promote the book, Miller will be on a signing blitz for the next few days, making the rounds of bookstores and events. He's not scheduled to read at any of them, but if you can coax him into it, do so. Unlike some other authors, who come to life on the page only to die on stage, Miller is as witty and charming in front of an audience as he is in print. And his stories might just bring some old memories back to life. They did for me.
At the cockfights in Navojoa, I came out ahead on the wagering. Anyone reading Jack Ruby's Kitchen Sink will come out ahead, too.
Jack Ruby's Kitchen Sink is excerpted in this week's issue. For Tom Miller's upcoming appearances, see that feature or check the Literature listings.