Midnight at the Oasis: Murder and Politics in the Inland Empire
By Alison PowellJune 9, 2012
The Angry Buddhist by Seth Greenland
THE SMALL, DRY TOWNS that lead eastward from Los Angeles to Indio, across the lap of California, form an island chain in a sea of sand, each with its own biome and yet each enough like the other to form, in aggregate, one place. The chain is a kind of Galapagos, easily isolated by its natural isolation, and ripe for study. It is in this insular region that The Angry Buddhist, Los Angeles writer Seth Greenland's third novel, operates, studying closely the evolutionary winners and losers of the area. But of course any region, even a solidly organized body such as that grassy monolith, the American Midwest, is never really just one place. There are subtleties and shadings visible only to those with adapted eyes, and it is those subtleties that Greenland crafts into a wild social farce, dependent on fine distinctions.
In Britain, natives play parlor games identifying the hair's breadth between accents belonging to areas sometimes separated by a mere twenty miles. In California, an area rangy enough to fit all of the United Kingdom inside its borders, the game is played from town to town, with Los Angeles and San Francisco the big pieces on the board. North-South divides, however, are tired. The true division in the Golden State is between East and West. To exclude the rest of the country, and world, from insider status, to know California, you have to know the Inland Empire. There is no coastal town that can touch it for sheer drifter's romance. One can only know it through long and sometimes aching exposure to it, or by reading the words of someone who has suffered this exposure themselves. And the Inland Empire is exposing. There are few places on the West Coast that feel less shaded, no matter what kind of pencil you use for drawing it — the desert is extremity, an environment that can't be survived without shelter. As we know, and Greenland reminds us, "Winter nights the temperature drops to near freezing. Summers can get up to a hundred and twenty degrees." In other words, the internal temperature of a rare steak.
But flights of mercury are only the most obvious of the extremes that pull at each other out there past the Fontana Speedway. It is the human extremes that are Greenland's subject, and he captures the high and low end with a crafty gaze. He begins, logically, at the center, where there is plenty of shelter. Too much shelter. Too many ways to hide, to screen the rich from the glare of culpability, and of their own failings. Before Southern California was divided into cantons with monograms for names — OC, IE, YL, NB, and SD — there was PS. Palm Springs. "P.S., I Love You," says the Chamber of Commerce merch site. But a bumper sticker can't cover the greater Desertopolis area; to take that in, a wide screen is needed, wide enough for the Vistavision picture that the topography demands. Greenland shows us the tended sprawl radiating from the neighborhoods that swaddle Palm Canyon Drive, cozy and secure all the way out Highway 111 past Rancho Mirage, Indian Wells, and Palm Desert. How delicately those place names fall off the tongues of the seasonal resident, the winterer from Chicago or Greenwich. But the real cities are there in summer just as in winter, and the names are spoken by locals, often with a harder bite. These are the points that interest The Angry Buddhist — Desert Hot Springs, Cathedral City, Twentynine Palms — where anger, not Buddhism, is the habit that citizens can afford. Says Greenland, omnisciently describing his territory and its settlers, "[Twentynine Palms] is the last outpost of civilization for nearly seventy miles. The quiet high desert streets and modest houses are home to a mixture of military dependents, ex-military, retirees looking for cheap housing, people who hate cities, and lovers of the vast emptiness." These lovers of the "vast emptiness" may be here by choice, or may be as stuck as the guy who can't sell his Wilshire Corridor condo. And though it may be vast, it isn't empty — not in this teeming novel, which watches a large cast of miscreants unblinkingly. There is nothing deserted about The Angry Buddhist.
To borrow from the band America, the desert is an ocean with its life underground and the perfect disguise above. Palm Springs becomes more interesting the deeper one dives. Pretending to be above ground is Mary Swain, burnished Congressional candidate and former "stewardess." Calling her a "flight attendant" would be a disservice to her honorable and thankless profession. Swain stewed for the wealthy owner of the private jet that carried the two of them around the country, as if on a tray, and eventually off into marriage and four camera-ready sons. Her calves look lathe-turned. There is naturally a Palinesque air about her — Sarah, not Michael — due perhaps to the attractiveness with which she stays "on message." Topside with her is Randall Duke, the Prom King to Swain's Queen, and her equally burnished opponent. If Swain is white pencil skirts and bullion highlights, Duke is glinting teeth, cream-colored suits, and a "helmet of perfect hair." One can't help but envision a Network-era Faye Dunaway, and the dimpled and unctuous Jack Cassidy of The Eiger Sanction. The desert, with its flat, white aspect, is an ideal blank canvas for the projection of dubious fantasies.
Down below, below the surface or simply below stairs, is Nadine Never, a taut, twentynothing former tennis teacher — an amateur on and off the court — who works at the adroitly-named Fake 'N' Bake tanning salon in Desert Hot Springs. Nadine squats in foreclosed-on digs in Cathedral City, and at the end of the day uses her illegal generator to rev up a Lean Cuisine. Neither Mary Swain nor Nadine Never is trapped, not truly. Rather, Nadine traps others, while she roams free. Nadine goes rogue, to borrow from the electoral lexicon, and in doing so produces a madness as toxic as the compounds sprayed onto her tanning clientele. As Greenland warns in the novel's opening passage, "In the desert the sun is an anarchist. Molecules madly dance beneath the relentless glare. Unity gives way to chaos. And every day, people lose their minds." During the course of the narrative, over ten days, most everyone in The Angry Buddhist loses his or her mind. To be fair, it is the ten days leading up to Election Day, these are politicians, and several of these minds were already on the edge. Meet Kendra Duke, Randall's wife. Or, Harding "Hard" Marvin, the Desert Hot Springs Chief of Police. Meet, please, Jimmy Ray Duke, Randall's brother, the detective that Hard pushed out of his job over a Rube Goldberg-styled, yet emotional, infraction with a police dog. Jimmy has undergone treatment for anger management and is, when the novel opens, rolfing his own karma with daily doses of Zen affirmation. Jimmy is, bien sur, the titular "Angry" Buddhist, as well as the pleasing center of the piece. The Buddhists say that life is suffering, and thanks to a panoply of very human, and delectably very bad, decisions the population of this seared landscape suffers plenty. Baring its oxymoronic soul, The Angry Buddhist informs us that this is a realm where love squares off with hate, realism with farce, and serenity with insoluble regrets.
Helping Jimmy in his court-ordered wish to ascend is Bodhi Colletti, screen name "Dharma Girl," a character we meet only through her Zen IMs to Jimmy. She's a kind of spiritual coach whose messages accrue over the 395 pages to create the only real sense of safety in this fragmenting world. "Dharma Girl's" diametric double is "Desert Machiavelli," an anonymous and corrosive blogger menacing the campaigns. If Dharma Girl is peace, then Desert Machiavelli is destabilizing anxiety, and not the free-floating kind. Zeroing in on the softest of the candidates' vulnerabilities, a truth-teller in a land of prevaricators, the Machiavelli names names, fingers transgressors, and takes on the role of the punitive God these meager cities could surely do without.
The Dukes of Palm Springs, filed away in their sleek mid-century modern with their precocious teenage daughter Brittany, fluent in the language of the hostile T-shirt, are, as their name implies, local nobility. Not as noble as Mary Swain (despite the literal meaning of her name, "the rustic, the peasant") but longer of pedigree. As is so often the case with noble houses, the lowest serf, emotionally speaking, is an expendable relative. Here, that assigned family role goes to Dale, Randall and Jimmy's paraplegic brother, whose back broke in a motorcycle accident years before, and who, at the start of this most important of weeks, is released from prison and into the care of Randall, his tactical older brother. Even before the motorcycle accident that paralyzed him, Dale is a fall-taker, and he takes the fall for Randall one too many times. In the desert, you can remember your name.
This suitcase has a false bottom, as it turns out, and below Nadine there is an even lower layer to be discovered. Discovered, it should be said, in Fontana, preserving the appearance of "The Springs" as an oasis whose waters are clean. One can see why it is necessary to keep the pantomime at a remove. Geographically, the real trouble takes place out there, in the vast emptiness. Easier to clean up, one guesses. But possibly it is because that is where Greenland's storyteller's heart lies, and where his interest takes him again and again. Indeed, he is at his lyrical best, and The Angry Buddhist achieves some of its greatest peaks, when he describes what he sees physically. "The Sonny Bono highway is behind them and the desert spreads out on both sides. To the west a forest of giant steel windmills, arms whirling crazily in the moonlight...The road is a sweet dream as they climb the hills, smooth and easy." And later, even the aggressively unevolved Hard Marvin notices that, "A shaft of sunlight falling through the picture window illuminates a river of dust motes that refract the light as they loop and twist in a chaotic ballet." The people Greenland is none too sure about. The land that he loves without restraint, even when he is luxuriating in dismal-feeling details: "Houses dot the hillsides, a business strip up ahead with a Koran restaurant, a Pentecostal storefront church, a unisex hair salon and a service station."
What these miniature odes build to is a counterbalance between the low deeds and lower motives of the actors spread across the bright, hard pan of that particular valley, and the high aspirations of the landscape. After all, without irrigation, the Coachella would not be capable of offering up one plump grapefruit or sugary Medjool date, the sweet most favored by the doomed Dale Duke. The place wants to be more than it is, and against nature, it succeeds. But it is when each element is seen exactly as it that we understand it as richly as Greenland understands it, which is to say, like one of its own. Dharma Girl ends up being the (disembodied) voice that explains why this is so, saying, "Profundity can be found in the strangest places." It is the needed coda, the P.S. P.S., we wave, I Love You.
Alison Powell lives in Tampa, where she is heading the literary wing of the Oxford Exchange (opening Summer 2012). She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and likes the singing of Keith Carradine.
LARB Staff Recommendations
"No other feature of our national landscape has the same lonely menace, the same panoramic yet stifling dread of an empty highway."...
I held my father's copy of Mein Kampf in my hand wondering if it should be kept, donated, or set on fire in the backyard....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.