By Don Waters
Published September 2007
Reviewed April 20, 2008
Originally reviewed in : BookReview.com
The winner of the 2007 Iowa Short Fiction Award, Don Waters’ “Desert Gothic” is a collection of 10 stories set in the deserts of southwest America. Depicted as a near no-man’s land where the isolation is as prevalent as the heat, Waters has envisioned prime examples of the people who live there and the psychic anchors holding them in place.
Waters’ stories are first and foremost character studies, focused on how disadvantaged Southwesterners eke out a living. Their jobs range from esoteric to illegal, but all seem to involve transporting something: chauffeur for a cathouse, Mormon missionaries in cheap motels and smugglers of prescription drugs from Mexico. Several of them have hidden motives as strange as their work, be it earning enough to get two custom Bowie knives out of hock at a cheap pawnshop (“Blood Management”) or fixating on a hair dye model while building a desk (“Little Sins”).
These stories are certainly not cheerful – loneliness is a common theme, and at least three of the main characters have had their lives offset by cancer. Rather than inspire with heroism, Waters takes the route that their virtue is survival in an inhospitable world, finding a niche to thrive in. Live in a retirement community before middle age? Take a job fetching medication for your neighbors in Mexico (“Mr. Epstein and the Dealer”). Work cremating bodies but have an artistic streak? Idle away hours painting on abandoned urns (“What to Do with the Dead”).
It helps that Waters’ writing style is perfect for his setting, bringing a more arid feel to the minimalism seen in authors like Raymond Carver and Chuck Palahniuk. His sentences are short and sharp, giving the full picture of the scene without unnecessary details. “Dan Buck” has some of the most characterful descriptions, following a long-distance runner through a series of colorful hallucinations and “so much chafing between … thighs that they look syphilitic.”
Personal favorites among the stories include “Mr. Epstein and the Dealer,” which shows an atypical relationship between a drug dealer and his client; and “Mineral and Steel,” a very personal story centered on an aspiring writer living in the mountains and dodging his stepfather.
On the other end, “Sheets” wins the title of weakest story thanks to a lack in momentum, focusing on the moods of a jilted lover oddly fixated on bedding.
“Desert Gothic” is a wonderful collection of dysfunction in the Southwest, stories that never quite state their point and filled with characters whose motives are hidden but always clear. It’s a bleak and dry world he shows us, and yet also an oddly inspiring one.