ANYONE WHO HAS spent time in a desert or the high plains knows they are not the lifeless, barren landscapes popular narratives frequently make them out to be. They are, instead, often populated by the rugged, the eccentric, the poisonous — people who simply have nowhere else to go. In Terese Svoboda’s expansive new short story collection, Great American Desert, her meticulous and lyrical prose brings these stories to life in ways that are often stunning, deeply felt, and uniquely perceptive. Taken alone, these stories — some of which are flash stories clocking in under four pages — provide their own vivid snapshots of lands and people frequently in contradiction with themselves. Taken as a whole, the collection is like layers of stratum that produce a beautiful yet ominous portrait of an ecosystem that’s given more than it can sustain, and people who have taken more than they deserve.
The collection is organized chronologically and bookended by two of its more experimental stories. The first, “Camp Clovis,” is about a group of Clovis boys tasked with guarding psychedelic plants that bring “dreams.” As an opening story, it is a bold (and rewarding) choice whose effects ripple through the rest of the collection. Certain moments in the story give the impression as though time is being folded, and the distinction between past and future is lost.
Confronted with a decline in game, the male hunters, “deny that they took any more bison than usual, they say there are just fewer bison all around. Their wives spurn them. They love bison, cooked with sumpweed. The hunters retort that even the big deer is not rutting when it should. Maybe the deer have other wives, scoff their wives.” The use of “retort” and “scoff” seem anachronistic, but the effect is a freeing one, speeding the story away from clichés of monosyllabic cavemen grunting in a prehistoric void. The boys are unable to protect the plants and the stage is set for a variety of conflicts revolving around land: in particular the absurdity of land ownership and our attempts to control land, both brought into focus by the geologic timescale these stories span.
In the final story, “Pink Pyramid,” we jump ahead to an unspecified future in which the earth itself is toxic, and the use of fire — once an engine of shelter and progress — is now liable to get the characters killed. The main characters navigate a disorienting and hostile world in which the familiar handrails of society, as well as some traditional story elements, are now gone. The nameless characters needs are basic: food, shelter, love, and fire. Images and locations from previous stories in the collection echo here — the pyramid is built from debris, its genesis likely the weapons dump and trash heap central in other stories. Svoboda’s marriage of form and content here pay off, since the end result is as spectral and strange as humanity’s last days will certainly be.
In both “Clovis Culture” and “Pink Pyramid,” the characters rely on animal instinct more than elsewhere in the collection. This framing implies we are headed backward, if not caught in a loop and fated to eventually live as our ancestors did. This dystopia is foreshadowed in “Bomb Jockey,” a story reminiscent of Barry Hannah. In it, the protagonist, Hump, and a team of others defuse, detonate, or otherwise handle munitions at the Black Hills Ordnance Depot during World War II. Hump is after a relationship with a local politician’s daughter, and for a time in the story he gets it — but the only constants in these stories are the proliferation of junk and the profoundly unsettling knowledge that all of our relationships will change, and inevitably, end.
While the subject matter in Svoboda’s stories is almost always intriguing, often rooted in fascinating bits of history, it’s her keen sense of rhythm and sound in sentences that sets her apart. She mines the lexicons of specialized work and different social standings and in doing so shapes convincing and poignant stories about a Midwestern landscape that is as sorrowful as it is full of life and turmoil.
Great American Desert should join the ranks of other landmark short story collections set in the same region, like Ron Hansen’s Nebraska and Annie Proulx’s Close Range. Svoboda has yet to achieve the same level of name recognition as the former two, but she is obviously a master of the form and willing to take the type of risks that are the bedrock of fresh and surprising fiction. The opening paragraph of “Cordless in the Fifties” could read as a prose poem on its own:
Past the pickled everything, especially the relish corn, past the pastry pies, their steam vents like eyes or pox with flesh showing through, past the stiff hem-stitched aprons flashing HOMEMADE because every seam shows perfect, past the pink and red ribbons on the sloppy first-aid kits, there — under the picture of the president — the door is open, left that way on account of the heat, slid clear into the barn side so the black beyond makes a wall where the bulb-light quits.
The alliteration here is in itself a joy, but the real feat of this paragraph/sentence is the momentum it generates for the story. By the time the reader reaches the end, they’ve not only tumbled headlong into the fair but also been stuck with the unsettling image of pastry pies with “their steam vents like eyes or pox.” As the sensory details pile up, so too does the strangeness, leaving the reader with questions they likely don’t even know they have: wait, why is this pie, of all things, so eerie, what is wrong with this narrator, and with the characters here?
The collection’s strongest and most moving story is “Hot Rain.” With echoes of King Lear, it’s narrated by the daughter of a well-to-do farmer now in the twilight of his life, still agonizing over love, sex, weaponry, and money, it seems dementia is causing him to forsake his children. The narrator and her sister are pitted against their brother and the caregiver he hired, known as “the witch.” At times it operates in the same registers as a black comedy, however, in the way that someone telling jokes on their deathbed makes the pain of their passing that much worse, only saddening the tone. Svoboda handles loss and old age deftly, and one of the most interesting questions this story poses is, to what extent is the old man’s dementia simply revealing his actual personality? The question is a potent one as it compounds the narrator’s loss; she is not only losing her father in the present, but also in the past.
Several of the stories in the collection have moments where the past, present, and future feel blurred. In many ways this slippage reflects our current cultural milieu: dystopian visions of the future frequently resemble our depictions of the past. And while it’s not a new idea that our past and future are the same — it’s at least as old as the Bible, “for you were made from dust, and to dust you will return” — in Svoboda’s work it feels urgent, as if we are in fact on the cusp of something foreboding.
The underlying dread in many of these stories is related to our role in changing the climate; the Earth we know is in many ways dying, and there’s little any one person can do to alter that. The epigraph from historian and conservationist Bernard DeVoto works on both a literal and metaphoric level then: “The West is a desert and we have been told we would be wise to remember every moment that roses also bloomed in Mesopotamia and Syria and Tunis and Ur of Chaldees and they are desert wastes now.” Eco-fiction is nothing new either, but recent work by Lauren Groff, Richard Powers, and Bryan Washington makes it clear we’re seeing a resurgence, acknowledging that it feels disingenuous to read, and to write, contemporary fiction that ignores this inescapable fact. In the past, a reviewer might at this point in the review casually mention a work’s potential legacy (e.g., “It’s destined to become a cult favorite”), but it seems delusional to put something like that here, so instead: read it soon, before the sea levels rise, the glaciers melt, and the wells have all run dry.