Books: Rough Edges, Terminal Dreams

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Hardware and Software, February 1997

Books: Rough Edges, Terminal Dreams
By Miles Harvey

Letting Loose the Hounds, by Brady Udall (W. W. Norton, $22). "There are times," explains a character in this sinewy collection of short fiction, "when the only way I can get back to normal again is by beating the shit out of someone who may not deserve it." In his first book of stories, Udall brings to life a small-town Southwest that is "chock-full with the frustrated and betrayed," where people "feel empty and loud like a desert wind." Udall, an Arizona native and nephew of former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, has clearly inherited his uncle's extraordinary sense for the land. Of one desolate Arizona setting, he writes: "This is more a wasteland than a backyard, as if the soul of the desert still festers in this very spot, refusing to be driven out with sprinklers and lawnmowers and fertilizer." His eye for character is no less sure, whether applied to a retired condom-machine salesman whose springtime pilgrimage to the Grand Canyon, though foiled by a broken-down station wagon and a car full of psych patients, nonetheless leaves him feeling oddly contented, or to Archie, a juvenile-delinquent-cum-self-proclaimed-cowboy whose best friend is a pet turkey vulture. Funny, unpredictable, and abounding with strange beauty, this collection marks the arrival of a fierce new voice of the American West.

Wallace Stegner: His Life and Work, by Jackson J. Benson (Viking, $33), The Geography of Hope: A Tribute to Wallace Stegner, edited by Page Stegner and Mary Stegner (Sierra Club Books, $15), Wallace Stegner: Man & Writer, edited by Charles E. Rankin (University of New Mexico Press, $20), and Why I Can't Read Wallace Stegner and Other Essays, by Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (University of Wisconsin Press, $18). When he died in 1993 at age 84, Wallace Stegner left biographers, former students, and lifelong friends and enemies with plenty of material. A Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who helped define the West in such works as Angle of Repose and The Sound of Mountain Water, Stegner was also the founder of the prestigious creative writing program at Stanford University and a highly influential teacher whose students included Wendell Berry, Harriet Doerr, and Ken Kesey. In addition, he was a tireless political activist, playing a central role in the emergence of the modern environmental movement in the fifties and early sixties and serving as a special assistant in the Interior Department during the Kennedy administration.

Now, nearly four years after his death, comes the first wave of retrospectives. In the only full-length biography of Stegner to date, Jackson J. Benson delivers a graceful if somewhat prescribed chronicle of the author's rags-to-riches life, from his boyhood as the son of a violent and restless bootlegger to his eventual metamorphosis into "possibly the most accomplished person of American letters in our time." Before his death, Stegner granted Benson extensive interviews and access to his files, but urged him to focus on "character rather than personality, career rather than ... private life"--an arrangement that resulted in a detailed but ultimately one-dimensional study. True, Stegner may not have had many skeletons in his closet--he was faithfully married to the same woman for nearly 60 years, for example--but we get little sense of his private persona. For all its thoughtful analysis, Benson's book creates a Wallace Stegner who is too upstanding and, in the end, too hard to know.

This is even more true of The Geography of Hope, a tribute to the late author by a group of literary all-stars. Terry Tempest Williams notes Stegner's passion for justice; Barry Lopez praises his generosity; and Ivan Doig observes his "almost preternatural patience with his fellow humanity." These paeans, edited by Stegner's wife and son, are eloquent and at times moving, but the overall portrait that emerges is one of a cultural icon, not an artist. Several of these essays also appear in Wallace Stegner: Man & Writer, another new collection that offers more probing views of its subject, such as Ann Ronald's look at several contradictions in Stegner's environmental philosophy.

Even more critical is Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, who takes up Stegner's relationship with American Indians--albeit with considerably less success--in the title essay of Why I Can't Read Wallace Stegner. Cook-Lynn, a Native American Studies scholar and herself a Crow Creek Sioux, attacks Stegner as the embodiment of a "colonialist imagination" that has denied Indians their rightful claim to history and perpetuated the myth that "the invasion of North America by European peoples [was] a movement of moral courage ... a victory for all humanity." It's an unlikely case to make--especially given Stegner's very public lifelong support of minority rights, beginning in 1945 with his groundbreaking civil-rights book One Nation--and Cook-Lynn simply does not have the literary chops to argue it convincingly. Her misguided essay proves that Stegner holds up no better as a devil than as a saint--and that the definitive portrait of him as an individual is yet to come.

Tourists: How Our Fastest Growing Industry Is Changing the World, by Larry Krotz (Faber and Faber, $25). By the year 2010, an estimated one billion people annually will don tourist garb and, in the name of cross-cultural experience and adventure travel, stampede through wilderness areas and hound "natives" with cameras. A veteran Canadian journalist, Larry Krotz argues that tourism, already the world's biggest employer, is causing a widespread cultural and environmental revolution that's even more profound than those brought on by television and computers--and clearly more threatening. Krotz travels from Belize, where he discovers that even so-called ecotourism is having hugely destructive effects on a local fishing culture, to Tanzania, where a staggering influx of tourists to the Serengeti is threatening lions' ability to survive in the wild, to the United States, where small towns desperate for tourist dollars prostitute themselves with gaudy attractions such as the "world's largest six-pack," a half-dozen beer-filled silos in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Krotz does see some hope for the development of a more sustainable kind of travel, however--one in which "the interests of the visited" take precedent over those of the visitors--but concludes, somewhat predictably, that in places where environmental risks are too great, such as the high Arctic, "there should be no tourism. Period." Still, his thoughtful work deserves a place within a growing canon of travel books that question not where to go but whether to go at all.

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