REVIEWED BY JODY HOBBS HESLER
In her trio of books on grisly crimes of the modern American West, Deanne Stillman examines our cultural love affair with the region and picks apart its mythology. Is it more than coincidence, Stillman seems to ask, that these particular crimes happened in this area? After all, those ungovernable cowboy vigilantes defending their land, outlaws who seemed to earn redemption through their calculated defiance, and westering immigrants who eked out new lives from unforgiving land must have had some effect on the place. Whatever the cause, Stillman proves that the modern West is as violent – and as beautiful – as ever.
In Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave, (originally published in 2001), Stillman investigates the victims and perpetrator of a brutal double rape and murder. She relates the moment she learned of the murders in the introduction to Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West (2009). Stillman drops into a bar after a day of hiking in Joshua Tree National Park, and, “[a]fter a while I heard the first few notes of a dark desert tale. Two girls had been ‘sliced up’ by a Marine, someone said; probably they deserved it. ‘Who were they?’ I asked. ‘Just some trash’ came the reply.” Twentynine Palms is Stillman’s studied rejection of this dismissal of Rosie Ortega’s and Mandi Scott’s lives. Much of the book also implicates the way Marine culture blended with the modern desert West ethos to foster a climate ripe for “the bloodiest crime scene in the history of Twentynine Palms.”
Donald Kueck, a drug-addled, paranoid recluse taking a final stand against authority makes a convincing modern day outlaw of the West in Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History (2012). At threat of arrest, he guns down the sheriff who has come for him. Kueck knows the desert landscape so well that, when he runs away, he is able to elude capture for all seven days “of one of the largest manhunts the desert had ever known.” As a lone man standing up against a whole military-equipped SWAT team, Kueck is the ultimate new millennium outlaw. In the West of yore, it would be the outlaw’s invincibility that would inspire, but Stillman insists on his humanity instead, drawing him as a complicated man who struggled with drug addiction, an inability to maintain consistent ties with family, and possibly an undiagnosed frontal lobe brain tumor. After his inevitable failure, you can’t help but feel something for him when SWAT members finally discover him, so incinerated by their final conflict that, “[w]hen they went to move the body, it crumbled.” Perhaps he’s the only kind of outlaw there ever was – desperate, outnumbered, barbaric, and not in control of his senses. This is the sort of insight Stillman wants us to derive from efforts to understand how the wild, wild became the modern West.
For all its violence, the West is a vital and beautiful place. Stillman waxes poetic for its landscapes, and, in Mustang, recently released on audio by Rare Bird Books, she advocates for its treasured mascot, the wild horse. Forget the eagle, Stillman argues in the introduction, “it is really the wild horse, the four-legged with the flying mane and tail, the beautiful, bighearted steed who loves freedom so much that when captured he dies of a broken heart, the ever-defiant mustang that is our true representative.” Mustang recounts the bloody massacre of more than 30 wild horses in Nevada’s Virginia Range against the backdrop of the history and heritage of horses in America. Mustang explores that history from the original emergence of the species in prehistoric times until their migration across the Bering land bridge; picks it up thousands of years later when horses “return home” with the conquistadors; and brings us to the present when the wild horse is losing the competition for grazing resources as, “across the West, our cattle cult continues to reign supreme.” Stillman opens and closes the book with the story of thirty-plus mustangs who were massacred for thrills by a threesome of locals, once again casting the violence of today in relief against the West of yesterday. In this case, it is against the West of many, many yesterdays.
Stillman has earned her writer’s stripes, with work appearing in Rolling Stone, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times, among other places, and Hunter Thompson’s blurb calls Twentynine Palms “A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer.” To her acclaimed skillset, Stillman adds a lifelong love of the American desert West and so makes a worthy spokesperson for it, describing the area’s beauties and contradictions with potent, lyrical language.
The desert comes vividly alive in Twentynine Palms: “There is nothing more promising than the desert in the morning; the chirping of the cactus wren and the scent of warming creosote hint of a life that is everlasting and right now,” with “…a landscape that looks like the place where life began, a big bottomless cipher filled with white sand, startling forms of cactus, and frogs that manifest after a desert rain.” Whether praising its beauty or warning of its dangers, Stillman draws the desert with calm, cool clarity and precision. Her well-turned prose draws us in, and her passion for the area keeps us reading.
That passion is evident across all her books and in her dedication to her subjects. Stillman comments on the extensiveness of her research in the endnotes of Mustang: “I consulted scientists, range experts, politicians, cowboys and Indians, horse killers and horse saviors, the diaries of long-gone historical figures, tepee skins, petroglyphs, books, articles, poems, artwork, the Old and New Testaments, government documents, trial transcripts, songs, movies, television shows, and plays.” This unyielding appetite for information uncovers details that pull us closer to the characters and subjects Stillman brings to life. Rosie and Mandi aren’t stick figure victims but fully realized people, complete with flaws. The smallness of their dreams matches the size of their opportunities, and their hard-partying ways and personal decision-making skills reflect the subculture in which they lived. Likewise, Kueck is an addict with deep-seeded psychological problems and a total disregard for authority, but he’s also a manic genius and a Dr. Doolittle with wild animals, for whom he sets out snacks on an outdoor table each morning.
At times, though, this cataloging of information can overwhelm. Perhaps Stillman could have left out explorations of Mandi’s mother’s childhood or the in-depth history of SWAT in Los Angeles County, for example. But sometimes the seeming side stories rivet on their own accounts, and sometimes they veer back on track to reveal surprising connections between characters, such as the moment, years after Mandi’s death, when her sister winds up on a double date with a young woman who was raped not long before the same rapist killed Mandi. Despite occasional information overload, Stillman’s scrupulous research confirms her as an expert in the subjects she tackles.
The interplay between today’s and yesterday’s American West informs all of Stillman’s books. Any devotee of the West will gain new perspectives and learn something unexpected in Twentynine Palms, Desert Reckoning, and Mustang. Her stories give us a twenty-first century look at an updated West, where new characters seem to rise from the dusty memories of yesterday’s heroes and make us question our nostalgia.
List of Books:
Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History. New York: Nation Books, 2012.
Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West. New York: First Mariner Books in 2009; released on audio by Rare Bird Books 2014 (first edition published in 2008,Houghton Mifflin).
Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave. Santa Monica: Angel City Press, 2008 (originally published in 2001, William Morrow, second edition 2002, Harper Perennial).
Jody Hobbs Hesler lives and writes in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Her fiction, feature articles, essays, and book reviews appear or are forthcoming in Gargoyle, The Georgia Review, Sequestrum, [PANK], Steel Toe Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Prime Number, Pearl, A Short Ride: Remembering Barry Hannah (VOX Press), Charlottesville Family Magazine, and several regional prize anthologies and other publications. She has been a fellow at Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and, currently, she is an MFA candidate at Lesley University. You can find out more about her writing at jodyhobbshesler.com.