The American West: A Collective Denial




It seems obvious to call the American West a desert, though it has not always been the wisest thing to do in print.

In 1878, John Wesley Powell, legendary explorer of the Grand Canyon and Director of the US Geological Survey, told Congress that agriculture could not be sustained in the West without understanding the water scarcity that defines it. For his rationality, he was called unpatriotic. Many Americans still harbored the belief that “rain would follow the plow” — that with a little elbow grease the West would bloom into a desert Eden. Congress ignored Powell’s evidence, and encouraged settlers West, right into the Dust Bowl.

Almost a century later, Historian Walter Prescott Webb continued Powell’s work in his famous Harper’s essay, “The American West: Perpetual Mirage.” The Texan maintained that America had duped itself into draining the West’s water reserves to irrigate arid farmland. Like Powell, Webb was called a heretic, a doomsayer, and an infidel. At the same time, cities in the heart of the desert — Phoenix, El Paso, Las Vegas; all of which receive less than 12 inches of rain per year — became among the fastest growing in the country. Even while the Colorado River, which now supplies drinking water to 36 million people, dropped to an all-time low.

Today, these facts are familiar, almost tediously so. Each summer, drought, fire, and pine beetles ravage the West’s forests, and, in just the last decade, the Ogallala Aquifer, which irrigates most of the West’s farmland, has dropped by a third. These conditions are only predicted to intensify, too, in what many climate scientists are now calling the “new normal.”

The severity may be new, but the desert is not. Nor, it would seem, is our country’s collective denial of it; indeed, it may be as central to the narrative of the West as the desert itself.

No one knows this better than Claire Vaye Watkins, author of the breakout story collection Battleborn (2012), whose recent debut novel, Gold Fame Citrus, confronts our denial of the desert by showing us its possible cost: a future blighted by vicious wind, heat, and drought. What was projected to happen to the land in a few thousand years has, in Gold Fame Citrus, happened in 50. The snowpack has dwindled, reservoirs emptied, crops failed. “The water, the green, the mammalian, the tropical, the semitropical, the leafy, the verdant, the motherloving citrus, all of it was denied them,” writes Watkins. The Northwest and Midwest are heavily fortified and no longer accepting “Mojav” migrants from the West. The novel follows three such migrants — Luz, a former water-rights activist; her boyfriend Ray; and their adopted “translucent-skinned child” Ig — as they leave a Mad Max version of Los Angeles, seeking water and any end of the desert. But mostly water.

To call Gold Fame Citrus an apocalyptic book, though, would be a disservice. It manages to avoid the grim fantasies so common to the genre by nesting a carefully researched polemic within its story. One which makes the end of the world feel less like an exercise in existential horror and more like a too-near future we can too easily recognize — whether it’s in the bathtub rings now marking Lake Mead’s decline or the folly of the Central Valley Project, an unsustainable system of aqueducts that have turned California’s arid San Joaquin Valley into the “food basket of the world.” Watching these feats of human engineering fail in Gold Fame Citrus — not in a boom, but in a trickle — brings us face to face, as Webb said it would, with our denial about the presence of the desert.

Watkins grew up in this desert, in a series of nowhere towns rimming the Mojave. Her parents owned one of those little roadside rock shops in Death Valley where you can buy fossils and crystals. They started a newspaper, a chamber of commerce. And it was her home river of Owens, fed by the snowmelt of the Eastern Sierra, that was siphoned off to fill the Los Angeles basin about a century ago, in the epic water fight that’s at the center of Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. She has called this theft the family’s founding story.

That comment tempts one to read Watkins’s book, which is brimming with regional factoids and arcana, as a native’s defense of home. But the author’s history, snippets of which are fictionalized in her first collection, Battleborn, which is entirely set in the West, seems to preclude that sort of sentimentalism. In fact, in that collection’s first story we learn (and confirm, after googling) that Watkins’s father, Paul Watkins, was a right-hand man to Charles Manson. (Watkins is not to be confused with the Tate-LaBianca killer Tex Watson.) Watkins eventually testified against Manson, and he died of leukemia at age 40, before his daughter really knew him. It’s a hard legacy to fathom, but one which Watkins, in her fiction and essays, has explored with curiosity and candor.

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Few mythologies in this country are as durable as the West’s. Between pulp cowboy novels, John Ford movies, and Marlboro ads, most of us have compiled a “mental archive of images,” as Larry McMurtry calls it, replete with vivid panoramas and charming old rogues. The strength of these sepia-hued associations has flattened out a lot of facts about the region’s actual place and culture. It probably also doesn’t help that relatively few of our popular Western writers are themselves from Western states — not Cormac McCarthy, Annie Proulx, Charles Portis, or Zane Grey. Jack Schaefer had never even visited one until after he wrote his famous Westerns.

In other words, Westerns — a style of writing defined by terse tones and cowboy tropes — can easily be mistaken for books about the West. This mix-up is one of the reasons some homegrown writers like Watkins have steered clear of writing Westerns. Recently Watkins wondered aloud to The New Yorker about what regional stories got told and how; after all, most stories we think of as belonging to the Western genre have ignored the region’s defining tragedies — Indian genocide and natural resource depletion. But that very well may be changing with a new generation of writers. Watkins raises the question: “What does a book about the West mean now?”

Gold Fame Citrus would seem to be her answer — a reviving of the environmentally conscious novel of the West, like those written by Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey. Beginning in the 1940s, Stegner and Abbey, along with the likes of Terry Tempest Williams and the Native American Renaissance, worked to revise the pastoralism of the Western, leading a movement in hard-nosed writing about a region quickly being paved, mined, and drained. Stegner, for one, “singlehandedly corrected many of the facile myths about the American West,” as environmentalist David Gessner says, in his absorbing new book, All The Wild That Remains. Abbey, on the other hand, was a wild man. His memoir Desert Solitaire, about his stint as a park ranger in Arches National Park, inspired a generation of wilderness seekers and activists. Despite their differences, both writers expressed their love for the region through unflinching criticism of it.

Watkins is hastening a return to this sort of literary tough-love — an important development for a few reasons. One is a recent spike in popular Westerns. Best-sellers like Philipp Meyer’s The Son and blockbuster films like Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight have proved the genre’s staying power. These cinematic visions of the West, which tend to obscure more nuanced truths about the region, have made it difficult to revise the national imagination, since, as McMurtry notes, they’re “being projected every day in vivid color on a big screen somewhere,” with a potency hard to match.

One truth that rarely finds its way to the screen (Chinatown notwithstanding) is the disaster of Western water management, the scale and severity of which are almost too ruinous to comprehend properly: 17 successive years of drought, subsidies that ensure 80 percent of the West’s vanishing water reserves go to irrigating desert, and a Colorado River pre-apportioned to the last gallon (and then some). Surveying the scene, Gessner reflects that environmentally inclined writers like Stegner and Abbey, “far from being regional or outdated, have never been more relevant […] in this overheated and overcrowded world, their books can serve as guides.”

Gold Fame Citrus is less a guide than a timely reminder that the West, which just experienced the hottest year on record and a renewal of long-waging water wars, is a region in need of hard truth. Although Watkins “New Old West” is an imagined future, it contains more historical and scientific accuracy than a lot of fiction about the “Old West.” The force of its vision makes contemporary Western novels that omit environmental issues seem, not unlike Southern novels that omit race, out of touch.

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Gold Fame Citrus is named for the many mirages drawing people West. But unlike so many books about the West, this one begins in Southern California and charts a course eastward, as if Manifest Destiny were in full retreat.

When it opens, Luz and Ray are camped out in an actress’s abandoned mansion in “Laurelless Canyon,” surviving on ration soda, and mostly sleeping away the apocalypse. During a supply run to Los Angeles’s sewer-system market, where tunnel-dwellers hawk blueberries and rave in the dark, Luz finds a neglected little girl, Ig. On an impulse, Luz snatches Ig. Though no one gives chase, the toddler proves motive enough to move on: Luz and Ray decide to try for the other side of the endless desert, where water is rumored to flow.

What they find instead is a colony of worshipers, led by a dowser — a practitioner of the famously provincial dark-art of water detection — who live at the base of a boundless dune sea. The “Amargosa” they call it, the bitter mountain. There the postcard beauty of the Southwest has been buried in sand, creating whole new ecosystems and weather patterns. In this shifting, impassable, unrecognizable desert, Luz and Ray are soon separated, at which point the novel begins in earnest.

Gold Fame Citrus is ostensibly about the love triangle that emerges between Luz, Ray, and the Dowser. But the Amargosa is the real narrative engine. It’s a thing to behold, and Watkins devotes a whole chapter (her best) to its origins and study. There are writers who know trees and writers who know birds; Watkins knows rock. She does sand with the kind of meditative power that Terrence Malick does grass:

Sparkling white slopes superheated the skies above, setting the air achurn with funnels, drawing hurricanes of dust from as far away as Saskatchewan. Self-perpetuating then, the sand a magnet for its own mixture of clay, sulfates and carbonate particles from the pulverized bodies of ancient marine creatures.

Ancient marine creatures? Saskatchewan? Watkins is stretching our associations of the West, widening them out beyond the 19th century and US geography. She acknowledges our familiarity with the landscape shots so common to Western literature, but alters the lens just enough to make them feel uncanny. In some places, Watkins will begin an exterior shot, only to pivot the camera inward, enlarging the character’s interior:

We had accepted unawares a bit of the Canyon each time we saw a photograph of it, and those pieces, filtered and diluted, had accumulated in us, so that we never saw anything for the first time. Perhaps the ugliest of our impulses, to shove the sublime through a pinhole.

It takes a second to realize Watkins is talking not about a dam but an aperture. About the act of seeing, not what’s seen. Watkins practices a nervy sort of craftsmanship, one which requires a mastery of wilderness literature, but also a native’s feel for the region. In this case, what it feels like to grow accustomed to living among natural wonders.

Other codes of Western writing are similarly reworked. The lonely destiny of our hero Luz, for instance, feels familiar — think of almost any Clint Eastwood character — except that in Gold Fame Citrus it belongs to a woman. An antiheroic one, at that. Luz shifts erratically between a motherly instinct that confuses her and a self-loathing that endangers her loved ones. At times she makes the end of the world into a sort of Life-is-Beautiful game for her child; at others she feels the “astonishing relief of quitting,” and quits. Reading her, one immediately sees why Watkins gets compared to Denis Johnson and Mary Gaitskill, both of whom excel at the inner lives of sad sacks.

For a writer from the West who also writes about the West, Watkins isn’t often compared to writers who share that background or subject. This is a testament to her wildness of voice, but also to how tired the Western style has grown. In both character and authorship, it has been almost exclusively male-centric, with all the connotations of introversion and terseness that go along with it. Watkins knows the effects of this excessive maleness intimately. In her much-shared essay “On Pandering,” she describes how she wrote Battleborn, “for white men, toward them […] as an exercise in self-hazing.” And despite its playfulness of voice, Battleborn reads in places like a young writer proving she can write with the mythic sweep of Cormac McCarthy.

Gold Fame Citrus, on the other hand, reads more like a product of Watkins’s own homeward gaze. As she says, in a kind of rallying cry near the end of “On Pandering,” “I will start us off by spending no more of my living breath apologizing for the fact that no, actually, even though I write about the American West, Cormac McCarthy is not a major influence of mine.” For one thing, McCarthy never watched Los Angeles drain his hometown river to water its desert lawns.

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Edward Abbey wrote in the preface to Desert Solitaire that “much of the book will seem coarse, rude, bad-tempered […] Serious critics, serious librarians, serious associate professors of English will if they read this work dislike it intensely; at least I hope so.” Abbey’s sentiment could serve as a mission statement for books about the West. Many of them are hostile, either through the bleakness of their themes or the insistence of their commentary. (“I feel there is a curious grudge […] almost in the very soil itself,” wrote D. H. Lawrence, entering Taos, New Mexico, in 1922.) Certain nonfiction books, such as Rebecca Solnit’s Savage Dreams or Marc Reisner’s Cadillac Desert, go further; in them the world can feel just a nuclear test or hydraulic project away from destruction. (I used to live next door to a man who, after reading one of these books, promptly bought our Walmart out of ammo.) A reader may indeed easily mistake reading about the West for reading about the apocalypse.

This helps explain why critics have been so quick to compare Gold Fame Citrus to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, though they feel nothing alike. McCarthy plays coy with causation — by splitting his world into a “Before” and “After” he leaves the connection between the two tantalizingly unknown. Watkins goes after a different effect. She draws a direct link between the human folly of the past and the damaged present — for instance, how the construction of state-spanning aqueducts in the 20th century signaled the end of the West as we knew it. And some of the novel’s set-pieces, however seemingly absurd (such as a drain-stopper in Lake Powell), aren’t nearly as disturbing as our own government’s plans, like the rerouting of a lower section of the Mississippi across Texas. That plan hasn’t gone through — nor has NAWAPA, a 500-mile long super-reservoir in British Columbia — but the fact that it’s been discussed at all reveals the desperation of those charged with planning the region’s future.

Water is an old issue in the West. So then why does it always feel like such a new one? California’s most recent drought, for instance, seems both unforeseen and inevitable. Here’s Watkins talking about this paradox to Vogue: “When you grow up in the Southwest, you spend a lot of time thinking about water, but you spend even more time trying not to think about water.” This sort of cognitive dissonance almost ensures desert droughts become disasters, but it’s also what helped us settle the West in the first place. Watkins stokes this irony by having her characters carry around the works of Stegner and other environmentalists, but especially John Wesley Powell.

After exploring the Grand Canyon in 1869, Powell helped map the rest of the West, supplying what’s still the region’s clearest border — the 100th meridian, west of which agriculture is nearly impossible by precipitation alone. When he addressed Congress in 1876, the government believed that Colorado could be remade, via subsistence farming, into Iowa. Powell explained that two-fifths of the country could not be farmed without detrimental water loss somewhere else. What he proposed instead was a Jeffersonian vision of community agriculture, with shared grazing land and carefully managed irrigation. He was ignored. The pull of the westward myth was too strong. Wells were drilled, aqueducts built. Nearing death, Powell prophesized that “disaster [would] come upon thousands” in the West.

Watkins puts Powell’s prediction at the forefront of our minds. She narrates Luz’s origin story through a series of environmental press releases and newspaper clippings, last-ditch efforts by the government to warn the masses of the coming water-apocalypse. “EVERY SWIMMING POOL IN CALIFORNIA TO BE DRAINED,” reads one. “BEFORE BABY [LUZ] IS OLD ENOUGH TO TAKE SWIMMING LESSONS.” As with Powell’s warning, and those pouring out of climate conferences today, the posters fail to elicit much action. But they rig up a through-line from past to present to future. Just so, Stegner said that without such a rigging, the Western present — and its many problems — would seem “as cut off and pointless as a ride on a merry-go-round that can’t be stopped.” Gold Fame Citrus’s great feat isn’t the future that its author imagines, but the continuity created between past and present. One of the sole items Luz carries into the Amargosa with her is a copy of Powell’s work; it weighs as much as water.

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The West is more than just its lack of water, of course. And great young writers are today focusing on other aspects as well. Callan Wink, for one, in his debut collection Dog Run Moon, has written a subtly offbeat book that plays the Western genre for laughs, highlighting how seriously a seriously weird region sometimes takes itself.

In the title story, his protagonist Sid lands in trouble, because, among other things, he sleeps in the nude. Bad hombres have come looking for their dog, which they claim Sid has stolen; in Sid’s mind the dog has been “liberated.” And so commences a moonlit ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) chase, with Sid and the dog afoot: “A magnificent bird dog for broken country such as this, no two ways about it. Sid kept going, hobbling, feeling the sharp rimrock make raw hamburger out of the soles of his feet.” A few sentences later, Wink describes the feared pursuer as riding “an evil old mare with cracked hoofs and faded brand” — but he’s talking about an ATV, remember — this is a parody of the Western Horse Chase. What had looked to be bravado, then, soon turns to out to be camp, thanks in large part to Wink’s recognizing the genre pitfall of such a self-serious plotline.

Throughout Wink’s collection these controlled moments of subversion elevate his stories — all of which take place in the West, often in Montana — to unexpected, comedic beauty. Such as when two Little Bighorn reenactors (Custer and his Native American killer) have sex while still in uniform — her in “a turkey-bone breastplate,” and “[riding] him like she had stolen him and God himself was in pursuit.” Custer makes a few appearances in this collection, most of them funny, helping to dim somewhat the failed Colonel’s mythic flame.

A Michigan native, Wink works as a fly-fishing guide on the Yellowstone River. He seems to know the waters of Western literature just as well as those of his own region. In one story, a father and a son drive home from a failed fishing trip and see a man burning a pile of tumbleweeds. “My father’s hand was a cocked six-gun,” Wink writes. “‘Crow country Moses confronts the burning bush,’ [my father] said, and began humming the theme song to The Magnificent Seven.” In those couple sentences, Wink delivers a few kinds of regional narratives at once — idiomatic, geographical, and cinematic. He does an admirable job of wedging them all into a book that never feels overstuffed.

In her debut collection Beasts and Children, Amy Parker, who critics have compared to Watkins, seems most excited to explore the West not as a narrative tradition but as a way of talking. Though advertised as stories, Parker’s book is really two intertwined narratives, that of the Fosters — an entitled diplomat family figuring out Thailand — and the Bowmans — middle-class Texans backsliding into poverty and divorce. The familiar device yields at least one strange reward: the Fosters are so self-consciously American they end up making the Bowmans’ Texas garishness feel exotic. In “White Elephant,” the collection’s first story, the Bowman girls Cissy and Carline hide out from their father’s rages in the family den, which is lined with moose, ram, and elephant mounts — the latter a rare albino. “The family trophies were all male,” Cissy says. “Females, Daddy explained, made worthless trophies. Except as wives. Your mother has no sense of humor.

Parker appears to be one of those people who moved constantly as a kid (her parents were in the diplomatic corps) and as a result lives in the inflection — the tinge of cultural difference most people don’t distinguish. Listen to how she amplifies the tics of Western English: “she was a few sandwiches shy of a picnic, and Danny spoileder than the mayonnaise on them. All that acting up.” We get here all the highlights of a West Texas twang: colorful phraseology, a grammatical twist (think: more spoilt), and a side-mouthed ackt. Elsewhere, tiny verbal flashes brighten Parker’s sentences: “wobble-cocked,” “galumphing,” “bobwire fence.” Say it enough and that last malapropism almost sounds better than barbwire.

There’s a thin line between accent and affectation, of course, and Western fiction has a tendency of crossing into the latter: all those purty sunsets, folksy put-ons, and cowboy clichés we read in books and see on screen. Parker avoids those linguistic snares by showing how Westerners are constantly fussing over how they sound. “Her voice, normally lazy Texas with an upper-crust lilt, angled sharply,” she writes in one story. In another comes every Westerner’s petty annoyance: “a buffalo (bison—dammit, girls, the proper term is bison).” Parker isn’t being cute here, so much; she’s affixing character to place. The West, like the South, has always been anxious about its sub-dialects and ways of speaking. (I once heard a Texan friend answer someone’s Texas-Has-a-God-Problem comment by saying, “first off, in West Texas it’s the Lord.”) Likewise, Parker’s characters inhabit the cracks of their language, which makes Beast and Children feel of — rather than merely about the West.

Even as this batch of new writers give us formerly unappreciated corners of the West, several writers persist in wearing familiar grooves down the highways of myth and manhood. We recently lost Jim Harrison, who died in March at age 78; he was an author equal parts woodsy legend and workhorse, with a career that spanned Legends of the Fall and an extraordinary 40-some other books. His last work, The Ancient Minstrel, is a three-pack of novellas (a favorite form of the writer’s), all of which take place in Montana and examine the life lived far outside the city, often by the rhythms of livestock, and usually crippled by dishonesty, bourbon, and sex.

In Harrison’s period dramas, these tough-guy tropes read like authenticating details of the Old West. In The Ancient Minstrel, which is prefaced by an autobiographical wink, in which Harrison tells us he decided to continue 2002’s memoir Off to the Side as this book’s first novella, these tropes feel something like a belief system. The unnamed writer-protagonist of the story roams around Montana and does little, though indelibly: he gets chased by his gun-toting wife for cheating; raises some pigs and dogs; fails at writing his latest book; mentions his incredible arm-wrestling strength; and rues the modern writing world, where “students were strictly off-limits […] in no small part due to feminism.” Harrison’s legacy is an artfully feral one (he lost an eye to a glass bottle), and his language is always sumptuous; but one can’t help but wish Harrison’s women got some of the tortured flaws of him and his men. Instead, in the book’s second and best novella, Eggs, Harrison gives us Catherine, who despises the other sex and describes the childbirth that is in many ways the climax of her life as “hard work.” Blow jobs, we also learn, are “not something she especially looked forward to.” Booze neither. The Ancient Minstrel, for all its juicy fun, is part of the old order in a literature trying to move on.

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Wallace Stegner felt the West was too careless with its own traditions. Its novelists often eschewed the region’s environmental and ethnic issues to indulge in scenery and reverie. And he worried this would have dire consequences, for both the place and its literature. In his essay “History, Myth, and the Western Writer,” he wrote that “[Western writing] remains rooted in the historic, the rural, the heroic that does not take into account time and change.” He added, “This means that it has no future, either.”

This was true in 1969, and for the most part, it still holds true today. The short story collection, by virtue of its ability to toggle between the vastness of voices and time periods that define the West, should be uniquely suited to remedying the problem; and it has been a dominant mode of Western writing (celebrated examples include Annie Proulx’s Close Range and Richard Ford’s Rock Springs). Even so, one of the few noticeable absences in many collections, as well as in Wink, Parker, and Harrison’s, is any real discussion of natural resources, particularly water, the subject that now dominates the regional nonfiction, news, and psyche. How is it, one wonders, that a literature faced with such richly urgent themes has struggled so mightily, even in the shortest form, to sputter into the present?

Partly it’s because nature writing can read like inside baseball, leaving readers bored or, worse, annoyed. In one passage from Gold Fame Citrus, for example, Watkins mentions that the Amargosa’s sand is “so high in saline that a sample taken from anywhere […] would be salty on the tongue.” It’s a deceptively double-jointed sentence. Saltiness seems an eerie detail that upon closer inspection (notice the ecological use of “saline”) reveals itself to be an allusion. Today, many major rivers in the West have tributaries saltier than the Pacific — an irrigation-induced phenomenon called salinization, in which farm runoff soaks through the West’s mineral-rich soil, poisoning the groundwater. The problem is so bad, in fact, that many experts believe it will be salt, not drought, that will do the region in — almost like the earth has ordered its own scorched earth campaign. For a writer, such a poetic conceit must have been too good to pass up, even if some readers will miss, very understandably, its larger context.

In a book like this, environmental complexity justifies itself; it imbues an otherworldly plot with a haunting texture of realism. Readers will recognize in Gold Fame Citrus the formal risk-taking of Watkins’s short work — the elasticity of time, the sidestories. But they might question how sustaining such methods can be over 300 rather than 30 pages. This new book is filled with mise-en-page experiments that read like inserted oral histories, questionnaires, and even a fauna sketchbook, all of which are narratively relevant, but nonetheless give me the sense Watkins had herself a genre-bending short story she couldn’t stop adding to. Over-elaboration is the great didactic trap of nature writing, and, at times, it makes Watkins look like a better environmentalist than novelist.

Gold Fame Citrus is no mere warning, though. Watkins’s imagination is far too uncivil and her knowledge of the region too entrenched to believe the land could save itself. Her book scoffs at the very idea that Westerners could be saved or driven off their land. “There was no water crisis,” Watkins writes. “Theirs was a human crisis […] A little agony was just what this place needed. Reintroduce hardship into the regional narrative.” “Regional narrative” is working both ways here — as a history of stubborn denial and as the myth that’s kept us in the dark. Either way, Gold Fame Citrus demands that we face the reality of aridity, and look forward with clear eyes to what new life will adapt and evolve to do the same in the future. “Now there were tortoises out of Dali and Technicolor lizards and wandering trees,” Watkins writes. “Suddenly this was a land of could.” The surprising part of Watkins’s West isn’t that it ends in drought and sand, but that the end might actually be an evolutionary watershed.

Maybe Watkins’s book is myth; maybe not. But that’s the real gripping awfulness of Gold Fame Citrus — watching history and myth converge in the same future. One we’ve seen coming all along.

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Noah Gallagher Shannon is from northern Colorado. His work has been featured in The New York Times Magazine, Slate, The Washington Post, Runner’s World, and other publications. He teaches undergraduate composition at Columbia University.


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