Saturday, October 28, 2023

Book Review: High Desert Elegy by Michael G. Vail

High Desert Elegy by Michael G. Vail
Reviewed by John Krieg


There is something about the desert.  No other environment on planet Earth is more cleansing and clarifying.  No less a figure than Jesus Christ went out in the desert for 40 days and 40 nights to get his mind right before His ill-fated journey to Jerusalem.  Mere mortals need more time, say the 40 years that author Michael G. Vail has spent visiting and eventually living in California’s Mohave Desert adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park.  Locals call it the “high desert.”  Like the unusual and gawky Joshua Tree itself, this area is just plain unique and different.  As is High Desert Elegy.


This collection of 23 short stories and 12 poems has been written by a man who has obviously lived a lot of life.  He realizes that what the desert and the human condition have most in common is the ability to endure if either is to survive.  Vail sets the tone for this harsh stark environment in the very first paragraph of his very first story of the same title as the overall book’s title:


On the Sunday that Maria committed suicide, the morning sun gradually ascended into the cloudless azure sky, its blinding light filling the dining room’s wide picture windows.  Sprawling across a prominent ridge top, the handsome house overlooked the little town of Last Chance.  It huddled in the middle of the valley floor, surrounded by a vast expanse of desolation and creosote bushes (p. 1).


Many of the stories are set in the late sixties and early seventies; what many of us boomers consider to be the golden age of rock n’ roll. The author graduated high school in 1970 with the scars left by the social upheavals of the Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations still festering in the national psyche while opposition to the Vietnam “conflict” was still raging, and some of his pieces speak of the tenor of those times.  Consider that what was to become the boomer generation thought that they had the blueprint for a better world resting in their hands with the success of Woodstock in August of 1969, only to have it laid riven at Altamont in December of that same year.  Idealism and cynicism vied for the soul of the youth of America, and after the Kent State shootings in May of 1970 cynicism seemed to win out while the corruption of the Nixon Administration drove the last nail in idealism’s coffin.


There are ample gritty slices of life available here, not the standard fare of the rude, crude, and lewd too often available from Bukowski wannabes, but instead, nuanced conflicted character sketches portrayed with a poet’s sensitivity. Vail provides the pictures’ outline, and the reader can fill in the colors, or lack thereof.


In Happy Land, set in June of 1970, a teenage girl’s family falls on hard times just as she is about to begin college forcing her to land a job at an amusement park’s resort hotel where she becomes embroiled in scheme to clean rooms for trysts between prostitutes and their john’s whereby she is given cash with no questions asked for her services and her silence. But her naivety and sense of morality well up inside of her causing her to question her part in the whole sordid affair.


I didn’t think much about the immorality of the shenanigans that were going on until a week later.  I entered a room right after the hooker and her john had left.  Setting in plain sight on a nightstand next to the unmade bed and its dirty sheets was a brown leather wallet.  I picked it up, intending to turn it in at lost and found.  But first I rifled through its contents.  My curiosity had gotten the best of me.  Perhaps there was something in the wallet that would give me a clue as to what kind of man paid for sex with a stranger…


The next thing I found made me wish I hadn’t looked in the wallet.  It was a family portrait, obviously snapped by a professional photographer.  Smiling at the camera was Eddy.  At his side sat a strikingly beautiful young woman with long, curly red hair and, between them, a darling little towheaded boy, perhaps five years old.


Why would someone with all of this sneak off to meet a prostitute?  I couldn’t get my head around it (p. 84).


One of life’s most dependable truth’s is that when most people reach adulthood, or at least sexual maturity, very few of them change after that.  This point is hammered home in the book’s longest and most convoluted story entitled: Too Many Empty Hearts. A man who is cheating on his wife becomes involved in the murder of a woman that he is having casual sex with when her new boyfriend, a short-tempered biker type, confronts the two of them at her apartment, and in a fit of rage stabs her to death.  The biker runs off and gets away to Mexico while the unlucky man is seen running from her apartment in an effort to seek help, but instead is charged with the murder.  Just when it looks like he will be convicted his fast-thinking attorney digs up some photographs that tie the biker and the woman together at least to the point of instilling that all-important shadow of a doubt in minds of the jurors, and he is set free.  On November 15th he assures his wife, who stood by him through the whole ordeal, that he would remain true blue from here on out.  But a leopard famously doesn’t change its spots, and while standing in the unemployment line on December 1st he meets an attractive woman and nobly assists her through the induction process. 


After he explained the process and gotten her into the correct line, they went their separate ways.  But an hour later, they happened to run into one another again as both left the building.

 “Let’s get a drink,” he said.  “To celebrate the impending arrival of your first check.” 

“Why not?  Now that I’m unemployed, I don’t have any place I need to be.”…

“Should we get another round?” he said.

 She studied his face.

“My place isn’t far from here,” she said.”  “Why don’t we go there?”

 He looked into her eyes.

“I like that idea,” he said (p. 141).


There it was; motive and opportunity all tied up in a tidy little bow.  A leopard doesn’t change its spots.


In real life Vail divides his time between California’s coastal communities and the high desert, but his stories seem more centered in and  descriptive of the desert. There are rock strewn hillsides, cactuses, wide open spaces, blistering heat, frigid cold nights, rattlesnakes, and surrealistically, in October of 2016, Sir Paul McCartney holds an impromptu concert in a local’s bar in Pioneertown.Zany and eccentric and oftentimes lyrical  High Desert Elegy is a fast-reading romp across the arc of a well-lived life, and Michael G. Vail didn’t miss much of it in his observations which he generously shares with his readers.  In all, an exhilarating and wild ride down a high desert highway with no end to the horizon.


And then there’s the poetry:


Then the

Howling stopped

As quickly as

It started

And the desert

Fell too lonely

Once again (p. 169).


There is something about the desert, that’s for sure, and this book celebrates it and the fact that nothing could ever completely explain it. That’s the best part.

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