What Arizona needs right about now is a good novel.
Nothing else will do. Not a change in governor, a fumigation of the Legislature, a redesign of North Scottsdale, or a tripling of the education budget. While all these would be welcome, they cannot approach the curative and transforming force provided by a really excellent novel: a document that explains Arizona to itself and splits open its elusive soul.
I'm talking here about a novel with broad social contexts and a moral conscience. What Emile Zola did for the French working class in Germinal, what Tom Wolfe did to showcase 1980s New York avarice with Bonfire of the Vanities, what Rodolfo Anaya did for 1960s New Mexico in Bless Me, Ultima, what Saul Bellow did to rearrange the rowdy face of Chicago in The Adventures of Augie March, a talented Arizona author must do for this confused and troubled state.
The public dialogue in Arizona is shrill and repetitive, and the people lack vision: exactly the conditions in Mississippi in the 1920s during the period of William Faulkner's greatest productivity. And so it's time for a clarifying Arizona novel. We yearn for it like the soil wants water; poetic expression flourishes best in uncertain times. Someone must now make Pima or Maricopa or Pinal a version of their personal Yoknapatawpha and lift this region out of its malaise. Faulkner himself said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that novel writing "need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail."
A review of Arizona's longform fiction since the mid-19th century shows it to be much like the place itself: assembled in pieces over the years, almost accidental, full of slapdash constructions and half-starts, occasionally spectacular, invariably concerned with the extremes of nature, pockmarked with patronizing stereotypes and burdened with contradictions regarding race and class.
"There is no defining Arizona novel," says Alberto Alvaro Ríos, the state's first poet laureate. "Arizona's hallmark is individualism. And what marks our literature is that it has no overlying set of individualists. We have this insinuation here that history is all behind us. And so we echo that idea: that there isn't anything left to say on a grand scale."
But there is a lot left to say in a state built on the promise of endless land and second chances. Fictional dramas make us question ourselves and may force us to realize we aren't alone in our private thoughts. And they can have munificent effects across a society. During the idiocy and misery of the Peloponnesian War, Sophocles wrote Oedipus the Tyrant to show the citizens of Athens how blind they had been, how they had neglected the real business of living.
Ours is a young state without a cohesive literary tradition. The first printing press wasn't even brought here until the Daily Arizonian started publication in Tubac in 1859. Only a handful of major novels have ever been set here, despite an abundance of subject material. During my childhood and teenage years, I was always weirdly surprised to find a localized story. Literature too often seemed to belong to a far, rainy country, too history-haunted and pedigreed to bother with a place so fresh and new and banal.
This is not an essay about distinguished nonfiction books of which Arizona has many: John Wesley Powell's journals, Richard Shelton's Going Back to Bisbee, Charles Bowden's Blue Desert, George Webb's autobiography. This is instead about made-up stories, which have the power to expand the consciousness and lift the spirit like no act of the Legislature ever could.
Before we can move forward, we have to understand the ground we're standing on. Here is a review of past candidates for the "Great Arizona Novel."
A good place to begin is with a novel about some migrants, written by an author who never spent significant time here. Since Arizona's character has been determined far more by snowbirds and carpetbaggers than by its natives, it seems appropriate that Brooklyn Magazine last year named Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy the best novel of this state even though less than 71 pages clearly take place here (the bulk is set in Texas and Mexico).
But these are 71 unforgettable pages. McCarthy fictionalizes the story of the Glanton gang, a real-life band of marauders who were paid to scalp Apaches and then start inflicting their deep haircuts on Mexicans and then anyone else unfortunate enough to wander into their line of sight. After wandering through Sonora, they pass up through the Santa Cruz Valley and over to Yuma where most of them are slaughtered by vengeful Indians, but not before McCarthy clobbers the reader with his tortured and bloody syntax. "The man in the floor was dying and he was dressed altogether in homemade clothes of sheephide even to boots and a strange cap," goes one typical glimpse. An Arizona campfire is also the scene of the novel's intellectual climax in which The Judge, a nihilistic character as enormous and hairless as a giant baby, offers his thoughts on the inherent violence of the universe: "War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him . . . War is god."
The book has been called "the ultimate Western," "an anti-Western," a critique of Manifest Destiny, or a scream of outrage against God's tolerance of evil. Distinguished state historian Thomas Sheridan has praised McCarthy's "hallucinatory clarity," which he likens to "an Old Testament prophet on mescaline." Yet its themes are too bleak and its moral grammar too restrictive to capture the full spirit of Arizona, which occupies a thin slice of the novel's action.
Another contender for "The Great Arizona Novel" also concerns itself with indigenous people, except in a much gentler way. Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge won the 1930 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, though it is rarely taught today. La Farge was a Harvard man who went West and developed a fascination with the Navajo, who already had been long-marched and were then in a time of economic upending, when raising corn and sheep was giving way to selling silver trinkets to the Santa Fe Railroad and receiving whiskey in return.
The plot concerns a young athlete named Laughing Boy who falls in love with a boarding school student named Slim Girl. If nothing else, the nature writing is first-rate, as in a scene where Laughing Boy takes his future bride to a far northern Arizona promontory with a view he says "hits him the face" and makes him serene, even though she cannot comprehend what he sees. "It was red in the late sunlight, fierce, narrow canyons with ribbons of shadow, broad valleys and lesser hills streaked with purple opaque shadows like deep holes in the world, cast by the upthrust mesas."
Trouble comes soon. Laughing Boy represents the unbowed aboriginal, but she comes from among "the Americans," without much sense of herself as a Navajo. Her neighbors are surprised she can even weave a competent saddle blanket. In a plot twist so lightly introduced that a careless reader might miss it entirely, Slim Girl is shown to be in an unhappy prostitution arrangement with a white man. Then she is killed by casual gunfire from another jealous man's rifle. Laughing Boy has to purify himself through a self-abnegating ride into the wilderness and a series of Navajo prayers.
Though it ends optimistically, the novel anticipates the later Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart in its portrayal of a man's heart being torn by the gradual colonization of his world, upsetting the harmony roughly translated as hohzo. At points La Farge reverts to sentimental anthropology ("among his people, corn was a living thing") but it remains a canonical Arizona novel for delving into the interior lives of the Navajo, who should be among the state's best-known people but still remain among the most occluded.
Young Native men turn out to be a major preoccupation of ambitious novels about Arizona. The innocence of noble savagery? The incorrosion of youth finding a racial parallel? Whatever the case, one can flash-forward most of a century to find another fine — if not quite Great — novel in the Laughing Boy geography, written in a warmer and more personal voice than La Farge's cool prose and with themes more buoyant than operatic.
The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall is a David Copperfield story of a 7-year-old boy on the San Carlos Apache Reservation who, having been conceived by an inept rodeo cowboy and his 18-year-old Apache girlfriend after a weeklong fling at the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, nearly dies when a "bird-boned" mailman runs over his head and is brought back to life by a stubborn reservation doctor who delivers "twelve solid hammerblows" to his chest before turning him over to a Phoenix hospital — and then pursuing him for years in a creepy quest to adopt him. A trail of comic episodes follows Edgar through a series of bad schools and a Mormon adoptive family in Utah, even as he realizes part of his life's mission is to travel to Pennsylvania to absolve the mailman from guilt. In its whirligig of characters and generosity of spirit, it stands as a fine novel. But its wanderings make it not the great Arizona novel it could have been.
Understanding Arizona's tradition of the novel invariably leads a reader to the dime Western novels that had their heyday between 1910 and 1940, as the remnants of the frontier were dissolving into a fever dream of railroads, dams, copper mines, and telephone wires. Americans seemed to recognize they had slain a wildness inside the continent — perhaps inside their collective selves — that could never return. And so they sought to make a wordy monument to the chaos and violence they had recently quelled.
The king of the Arizona pulp authors was Zane Grey, an apprentice dentist, amateur baseball player, and serial womanizer from Ohio who helped invent the tradition of mass-market Western fiction after the turn of the 20th century, at a time when the Indian Wars had sputtered out and most every town west of the hundredth meridian had secure railroad connections and law enforcement. After studying Owen Wister's 1903 cowboy novel The Virginian for pointers, he took a hunting trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in the company of a showman named Charles "Buffalo" Jones and then began to churn out novels and pulp magazine stories at a febrile rate. He wrote several of them in a cabin outside Payson.
"What strange subtle message had come to her out of the West? Carley Burch laid the letter in her lap and gazed dreamily out the window." The question that opens Grey's 1921 novel The Call of the Canyon could stand as a one-book summary of his considerable life's output, which concerned itself with strange "messages from the West," with the intended effect of causing readers to look dreamily out of their own windows with thoughts of sage and cactus.
No gunfire is exchanged in Call of the Canyon, only smoldering glances and misunderstandings as citified Carley takes the train out to Oak Creek Canyon to pursue the love of Glenn Kilbourne, a war veteran who finds the high desert a tonic for his broken body and spirit. After a few catty misunderstandings with a voluptuous ranch girl, Carley wins her man. Grey's plots were never models of sophistication. What mattered more was man's realization of the magnificence and even horror of nature, which is like a hornbook for humanity. In a moment of romantic despair, Carley goes out on horseback and climbs "a stupendous upheaval of earth-crust, grown over at the base by leagues and leagues of pine forest, belted at the middle by vast zigzagging slopes of aspen, rent and riven at the heights to canyon and gorge, bared above to cliffs and corners of craggy rock, whitened at the sky-piercing peaks by snow." The greatest perorations of Grey are not reserved for human dealings; these are the province of Arizona's land alone.
The disappearing frontier and its victims are at the heart of two minor Arizona novels of the pulpy tradition, both flawed but worthy of remark for the light they shone on marginalized women. Filaree by Marguarite Noble begins with a pregnant and resentful wife named Melissa riding in her husband's wagon toward the Roosevelt Dam and feeling as "bloated as a dead cow." Melissa goes on to fall in love with a ranch hand — only occasionally a good idea in books like these — and then move to Phoenix, where her boozehound husband abandons her with the terse note Gone to Texas. She ends up running a boardinghouse in downtown Phoenix (as my own great-great-grandmother had done in the 1920s) and epitomizing the modest, low-growing desert plant of the book's title. Filaree is a wandering novel, but it echoes a slew of nonfiction memoirs from Southwestern pioneer women like No Life for a Lady, Woman in Levi's, and I Married Wyatt Earp that constitute an important genre in Arizona literature.
All of them are better known than Dark Madonna by Richard Summers, which has been called the most important novel about Tucson that nobody has ever read. Some of its exaggerated racial tropes would never survive the heat of a modern edit, but it was an early naturalistic treatment of life inside a Latino barrio that did not romanticize or pull punches about the effect of poverty on the state's neglected population. Published in the grim Depression year of 1937, it tells the story of Lupe Salcido, the pudgy daughter of a speakeasy owner. She yearns for a real boyfriend but encounters only abuse and neglect at the hands of both Anglo and Latino lovers before trying to leave Tucson for better climates in a final scene with notes of Steinbeck. "Primitive and warm," announces the misleadingly pulpy jacket, "she lived for loving." While Dark Madonna suffers from overwrought dialogue and is not a true candidate for the Great Arizona Novel, it nonetheless explored territory on the eroticized margins that almost every other author of the time was afraid to travel.
Later years demonstrated more sophisticated portraits of the racial admixture of Arizona and its tripartite collision of Anglo, Latino, and Native cultures. Among the best of them was a 1993 novel by Alfredo Vea Jr. called La Maravilla, which takes place in the nether reaches of the Phoenix metropolitan spillage, among the shanties and poverty of the "unofficial trash heap" of Buckeye Road, where few nonlocals venture unless they have good reason. Mexicans dwell alongside poor blacks and the white Arkansan trailer-dwellers who "trapped pigeons every day and ate them stuffed with rice or dried bread." At the center of community life is the shabby Rainbo Market run by one Mr. Cheung.
Beto is a kid growing up on Buckeye Road with identities in two worlds: the defeated mysticism of his Yaqui grandfather and the sensuality of Josephina, his jazz-loving Spanish grandma. She happens to be a curandera, a religious healer, and keeps two kinds of icons in her medicine bag: a proper Catholic crucifix and a twisted juncture of wood that can barely be recognized as Christian.
There's not much of a plot to La Maravilla, as the soul of it is mainly a bildungsroman of Beto experiencing the "sumptuous ample embrace" of food and love from his grandparents and witnessing a series of disturbing incidents: A prostitute named Boydeen gets knifed by a customer and has to move into an abandoned shed behind the Rainbo. Josephina later chases her toward Flagstaff and watches as a white man tries to seduce her. She could see into his heart, the "shallow craven chambers pumping the thinnest blood." Beto takes peyote with his grandfather to understand the secrets of his ancestry stretching to the Olmec and the "long count" of the Aztec. While Vea's prose has elements of magic realism that echo Rodolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, these scenes are written in lucid terms. This is no incoherent Easy Rider acid trip.
All this is taking place while 1960s metro Phoenix booms in a taunting ecstasy of electric light beyond the edge of vision. Aside from the farm laborer buses that come by at 4 each morning, Buckeye Road might as well be on the other side of the planet. Beto has little contact with Phoenicians and cannot understand them. "They become other religions like choosing a hat and become other names and have no connection to places they live. They become the things they own or the cars they drive. They have no stories. They have no tribe. Their campfire is the television." Beto later gets drafted to fight in Vietnam and comes home a changed man to face a horrible loss in his patchwork family.
La Maravilla is not a well-structured novel — one suspects Vea's desire to write veiled autobiography kept its imaginative structure too much in check — but it deserves a place alongside Arizona's other great work of revolutionary post-Vietnam fiction: Edward Abbey's The Monkey Wrench Gang.
Has there been a more influential environmental novel? That is doubtful. Abbey was a seasonal ranger at Arches National Monument who memorialized his experiences in Desert Solitaire and later settled into a comfortable ranch home in nearby Moab, Utah, to write the second of his two masterpieces, a rollicking adventure novel about a band of four friends who aim to halt the damming, parceling, settling, and electrification of the Colorado Plateau by vandalizing construction equipment and plotting the destruction of the Glen Canyon Dam near Page (which Abbey memorably calls "the asshole capital of the universe"). Besides featuring one of the greatest finishing chase sequences of any Western novel, which is no small feat, the novel introduced "monkey wrenching" to the language as a term of extralegal technique.
Much has been written about Abbey's life as an activist and a rough camper — among American authors, he may be second only to Ernest Hemingway in the importance of his personal story to his work — but his biography fades to insignificance in the philosophical depth of the story and the giddy propulsive force of what amounts to an ensemble crime thriller in Arizona's northern backyard. Luis Urrea called it "an insanely violent and hilarious novel. It still feels subversive." Only half the book takes place in this state, but the details are finely observed, from the stern notice on the door of a Kayenta Holiday Inn to the pine-crisp air of the Grand Canyon's North Rim to the ugly alabaster slab of the Glen Canyon Dam, the novel's true villain, which goes unpunished.
It should come as no surprise that a major theme of modern Arizona fiction is loneliness. We live in a state brimming with sun-seeking migrants and corporate drifters seeking a fresh chance, reluctant to build long friendships because the next move might be next month or because age or sickness works against it. Many of our "communities" consist of quick-buck panoramas of detached ranch homes and apartment blocks with private entrances and coded gates. We yearn for comfort and receive isolation in return.
The novelist Mark Jude Poirier grew up in Tucson and has set some of his most important fiction in Arizona's second city, most vividly in Modern Ranch Living, a 2004 ensemble novel about some funny goings-on inside a (real-life) gated community called Rancho Sin Vacas, or "ranch without cows."
The dominant story is about the disappearance of a Magic Marker-sniffing weirdo named Petey, but that's almost beside the point. Poirier is more interested in exploring the low-grade despair of his twin protagonists in this fake community: Kendra Lumm, a 16-year-old bodybuilding addict with a surly attitude and a habit of adding "plussing as which" to her second sentences, usually spoken to tell somebody off. Her neighbor is Merv Hunt, the 30-year-old wastrel manager of Splash World, a slip-and-slide pool park. Poirier lards his novel with plenty of 1990s Tucson iconography: a liquor store called Lim Bong, walls lined with Our Lady of Guadalupe portraits, a seafood place called Mariscos Chihuahua, prostitutes among the no-tell motels of Miracle Mile, a mildly illegal sledding sport called "ice blocking" on the grassy hills of the La Paloma Country Club.
Poirier's characters are products of their environment, which they can barely appreciate or understand. At one point, shiftless Merv goes to the mall and finds it full of "bored-looking teenagers and senior citizens wearing ugly tracksuits in every pastel shade of pink and blue. Giant babies, grandfathers and grandmothers reduced to wearing things that made them look like giant babies." The Shakespearean continuum between infanthood and old age is carried further when Merv's father — near death from lung cancer — is led wheezing to the edge of a backyard swimming pool at night to regard the "swirls of stars in the velvet sky." The novel is a rich portrait of a certain Arizona anomie that goes beyond the usual suburban satire.
"What's always fascinated me about Arizona — and it's something that I play with in my own fiction — is this idea that Tucson is a really ugly city in a beautiful setting. The same is true of Phoenix," says Poirier in a telephone interview. "There's no good zoning, strip malls everywhere, nothing prohibiting giant inflatable gorillas in front of used car lots. They don't give a shit what the cities look like. There's the imposing Catalina Mountains. But in front of them is a Whataburger. The beautiful juxtaposed with the ugly — but the beauty is still winning."
The ugly/beautiful dynamic of Arizona looms large in another notable novel of recent years — the phantasmagoric Drowning Tucson by Aaron Mark Morales, which might be read as a more sophisticated version of Summers' Dark Madonna, or a more violent expression of the ennui of Modern Ranch Living.
Interlocking stories document the disintegration of the Nunez family. In the opening scene, a gentle boy named Felipe who liked to "read and smell books" is stomped to death in a gang initiation, literally smeared into the streets. Hope does not rise from that point. A fist to the face lurks behind every story. The book ends in a Joycean pages-long sentence; a battered prostitute named Rainbow clutches the avenging statue of Pancho Villa mounted on a downtown median and wishes for the apocalypse of this "damned city."
Shifting points of view are also on display in a different kind of novel about finding one's way in the confusion of Arizona: Terry McMillan's highly successful Waiting to Exhale, one of the very few books to deal with the lives of African-Americans in Phoenix. Four women seek husbands in a Sex and the City narrative amid Circle Ks, real estate offices, and red-tile roofs. "Why would anyone in their right mind want to live in Arizona?" a sister asks the main character. "Are there any black folks out there?" Well, of course, and McMillan finds more narrative paydirt in the supportive relationships between her female characters than in their hunt for romantic love.
It might be seen as a more populist version of the gentlest — and best known — of the modern literary novels set in Arizona, Barbara Kingsolver's The Bean Trees. In lightly comic prose, Kingsolver writes about Taylor Greer, a refugee from a grim coal town in Kentucky who drives a beat-up car across the country, picking up an Indian orphan girl along the way whom she names Turtle, and fatefully breaking down in Tucson near "Jesus is Lord Used Tires," which might be a front for Central American immigrants seeking sanctuary, a signature progressive cause of the 1980s.
Kingsolver inhabits her wide-eyed narrator with precision. Crossing into Arizona from New Mexico on Interstate 10, Taylor sees clouds "pink and fat and hilarious-looking, like the hippo ballerinas in a Disney movie" and "rocks stacked on top of one another like piles of copulating potato bugs. Wherever the sun hit them, they turned pink. The whole scene looked too goofy to be real." She gets her share of further goofiness in the cobbled-together social circle she forms with Turtle, including a brooding Salvadoran named Estevan, the tire shop owner with a heart of gold named Mattie, and an overweight chile pepper plant factotum named Lou Ann.
There are points where Kingsolver appears out of control of her story, not knowing where to turn, but near the end, she pulls off a wonderful narrative coup de grace: turning a quiet piece of dialogue into a moment that puts all the wandering events into sudden order. Taylor is finally able to legally adopt Turtle through some extralegal sleight-of-hand. Killing time between appointments, the two of them are in a library looking up a horticultural definition of the odd-looking wisteria that Turtle calls "bean trees" and which thrives because of the microscopic bugs in the soil that give it nitrogen.
"'There's a whole invisible system for helping out the plant that you'd never guess was there,'" Taylor says to Turtle. "'It's just the same with people. The way Edna has Virgie and Virgie has Edna and Sandi has Kid Central Station and everyone has Mattie. And on and on.' The wisteria vines on their own would just barely get by, is how I explained it to Turtle, but put them together with rhizobia and they make miracles."
What Kingsolver is writing about, of course, are the interlocking bonds of friendship and mutual support that make life bearable. A place like Arizona, where neighborhoods can be sterile, transient, and impenetrable, needs this reminder more than just about any place in the nation.
There is so much left to say, and many readers will find fault with this essay for sins of omission. What about the rising tension of small-town desire and deception recently depicted in Judy Troy's superb Quiet Streets of Winslow? Or the specimen of 1944 fancifulness called Crazy Weather by Charles McNichols, in which a child named South Boy takes a Huck Finn-like trip down the Colorado River on a journey of "glory hunting" in which he becomes a man? Or the stark 1983 debut novel from part-time Valley resident Denis Johnson, Angels, in which two losers meet on a Greyhound bus bound for Phoenix and get tied up in a doomed bank robbery? The David Mapstone novels of Jon Talton that detail the grotesqueries hiding in plain sight in the sunny land of Phoenix boosterwash (and eerily like the real underbelly of the fake paradise that many second-chancers seek out here)? Or the entire mystery novel corpus of J.A. Jance, whose fictional version of Cochise County looks only intermittently like the real thing, but never mind.
These are all good regional books that occupy that spectacular fulcrum between cities and mountains, between thrown-up civilization and cold natural brutality. Arizona's literary tradition is not so much impoverished as it is disunified: still on the lookout for a clear expression of an organizing principle.
So if it hasn't yet been written, what would the Great Arizona Novel look like? What hasn't been said yet — or, more properly, what needs to be said?
Gregory McNamee, a former editor at the University of Arizona Press and the author of 14 books of nonfiction, has thought about this question and has an architectural theory for such a book. First, it should deal in an honest way with the Native Americans who came here first. Second, the land should become an unmistakable presence, almost a separate character. Third, it should revise and subvert the traditional idea of the lone hero taming the West. And fourth, it should have layers of depth and meaning that academics can love while retaining a straightforward prose style that the general reading public can admire.
"In order to get canonized," he says, "a book has to be taught." And very few of the books reviewed here — Blood Meridian being an exception — have yet found a permanent home on university reading lists. If it's too theoretical and dense, nobody will read it. And if it's too breezy and insubstantial, it won't last. In this vein, a neo-cowboy novel might be a good place to start.
"Our major output to popular consciousness has been Westerns," says McNamee. "We are both horrified and refreshed by our landscape, which is seen mainly through the eyes of outsiders. Abbey and Kingsolver are our best-known writers — and both of them are from Appalachia."
No coincidence, perhaps, as Appalachia is like a green mirror for Arizona: visually defined by steep and gorgeous terrain, lacking in cultivated land, suspicious of foreign cultures, economically unequal, misunderstood by outsiders, suffering from broken government, pockets of nihilistic blight mingled with pockets of great humane warmth.
Part of what works against the creation of an Arizona novel is the difficult soil out of which it should be emerging. Our universities have been abused and dehydrated by the Legislature for years, and Arizona State in particular is moving toward distance-learning models instead of the traditional seminar classroom, where the strongest relationships are formed.
Bruce Dinges, director of the publications division of the Arizona Historical Society, points out that Arizona has never had a "nucleus of letters" enjoyed by places like Montana and even Mississippi that tends to foster critical mass among groups of friends and acquaintances, whose output builds on a collective foundation. "We have an us-versus-them mentality," says Dinges. "There is no search for common ground."
To be sure, the University of Arizona has a fine MFA program that produced David Foster Wallace, among many other rock stars, and Arizona State University has the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing as well as the Hayden's Ferry Review literary journal. Yet most writers who pass through Arizona's MFA programs do not seize upon the geography or the local culture as a defining subject. At best, it becomes a cleansing repose, or the backdrop for a despairing short story or two.
There is no widely circulated magazine of ideas, no strong newspaper book review, no literary "establishment" to imitate or rail against, no identified group seeking to create superior regional fiction, and just a handful of well-stocked independent bookstores. Soul-searching analysis has never been close to the spiritual heart of Arizona.
"Migration and retirement communities defined us," Dinges says. "This was a place where you made a killing and moved on." Moreover, the most recognizable literature of Arizona tended to be rooted in Zane Grey cowboy fantasy and myths of the good life — hardly the building materials of a classic truth-telling novel. "There's an image pitched to tourists. People wanted to read what they wanted to believe," he says.
For Alberto Ríos, the necessary Arizona novel would play with the popular mythos of individual, but against a racially complex backdrop in a society where people don't know each other as they should: a reflection of Arizona's loneliness, hunger, and spiritual unease.
"It would be a mosaic approach," he says, seemingly haphazard but with an underlying logic. "The state was built by default rather than decree," Rios adds. "We want a perfect uniting vision of what an Arizona novel would be, but every one of our writers has created a little part of it."
Poet, novelist, and essayist Luis Urrea wonders if such a task is even possible. "Maybe it's too hard to capture the Arizona landscape without fitting it into easy clichés," he says. "A number of people here came because of the images — and those aren't always accurate. But we remain caught in those images."
The job of a novel is to demystify reality and provide clarity through a lie that tells a deeper truth. Now into its second century as an American state — and one that finds itself in a long argument about what it means to live on a literal and psychic border — Arizona needs this novel as much as it needs freeways and swimming pools and school referendums and health spas and air-conditioned groceries and dazzling magazine advertisements. After all that is done, we need desperately to know who we really are.
15 Candidates for the Great Arizona Novel
Blood Meridian, by Cormac McCarthy (Random House, 1985) A kid from Tennessee falls in with a gang of scalp hunters that slaughters its way across the Southwest.
Waiting to Exhale, by Terry McMillan (Signet, 1992) Four African-American women look for love in Phoenix but find stronger solace in female friendship.
The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper & Row, 1988) A plucky woman from Kentucky finds adopted motherhood and family among a group of helpful strangers in Tucson.
Laughing Boy, by Oliver La Farge (Houghton Mifflin, 1929) A young Navajo rider falls in love with a boarding school girl and they navigate a difficult marriage.
Apache, by Will Levington Comfort (E.P. Dutton, 1931) The chief Mangas Colorados unites his people in southeast Arizona but faces ultimate tragedy against the U.S. Army.
Warlock, by Oakley Hall (Viking, 1958) A chaotic silver mining town tries to restore order by hiring a brash gunslinger as a marshal, and things get even worse. Based on the events at the O.K. Corral at Tombstone.
La Maravilla, by Alberto Vea (Plume, 1993) A portrait of the rich human carnival along Buckeye Road, wrapped in a coming-of-age tale of a young boy caught between two worlds.
Crossers, by Phillip Caputo (Random House, 2009) A widowed man living on a family homestead in southern Arizona takes in a migrant. Drug lords soon take an interest.
The Circus of Dr. Lao, by Charles Finney (Viking, 1935) A mysterious showman arrives in the fictional town of Abalone, Arizona — a pioneering work of speculative fiction written by a copy editor at the Arizona Daily Star.
The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abbey (Lippincott, 1975) Four unlikely friends decide to blow up the Glen Canyon Dam and raise massive hell along the way.
Modern Ranch Living, by Mark Jude Poirier (Bloomsbury, 2006) Disconnected residents of a gated community move in and out of each other's lives.
The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, by Brady Udall (Vintage, 2001) A half-Apache boy gets shuttled between bad schools and foster homes while being pursued by the doctor who saved his life.
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Concrete Desert, by Jon Talton (Minotaur, 2001) A historian takes a job as a Maricopa County sheriff’s detective and gets sucked into a cold case that suddenly gets hot.
Half Broke Horses, by Jeanette Walls (Scribner, 2008) The fictionalized story of the author’s grandmother growing up poor and raising children on a huge Arizona ranch.
Bless the Beasts & the Children, by Glendon Swarthout (Doubleday, 1970) Six angsty boys at a punitive cowboy ranch in northern Arizona plot to free a herd of buffalo.