Mark Athitakis Newsletter #17

Phoenix, optimism, a bike for Christmas

Front Matter

About five and a half years ago, when I learned I’d be moving to Phoenix, I did what I’ve reflexively done whenever I’ve headed to a different city: search for fiction that’d help me understand the place better. Moving to San Francisco sent me to Tales of the City; moving to D.C. sent me to Lost in the City.

But the book that kept coming up in my searches for books about Phoenix was Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. It’s a fine, funny, sharp-elbowed book that I commend to you; for all of Abbey’s issues, it might yet convince you that he’s the closest thing American letters has had to Twain resurrected. But it’s also about a national park in Utah. Phoenix is not in Utah.

But five years on, the recommendation makes a certain sense. If, like me, you’ve only lived in dense cities and dense-ish suburbs, Arizona will force you to widen your frame of reference in all sorts of ways. A “short trip” somewhere can mean 20 miles; “severe weather” can mean light rain. Last week, Tucson Weekly published Tom Zoellner’s kinda-sorta tribute to the stretch of I-10 connecting Phoenix to Tucson---100 miles of unlovely interstate mostly marked by scrubland and saguaros---and though I wouldn’t exactly say my heart sang to read it, it evoked the same kind of that’s home feeling that I might get if a book I’m reading mentions Post Street or Connecticut Avenue.

I wonder if the broader, more regional thinking here makes fiction about Phoenix proper—-or even Arizona proper—-can be hard to find. It doesn’t capture the Old West quite like Texas does; it doesn’t suggest new beginnings like California does. When literary novels think about Arizona, it’s often as a dumping ground for secondary characters. (For a little while on Twitter, I kept track.) Lydia Millet, the best fiction writer currently living in the state, doesn’t write about Arizona much; nor do the best-known writers who’ve made their homes here, Diana Gabaldon and Stephenie Meyer. To his credit, Denis Johnson captured the oppressiveness of a Phoenix summer perfectly in his novel Angels, as a woman observes the city around her:

The Phoenix Sky Harbor lay to the south and east…. Mormons farther on---filthy rich to the north---percolating black snakehandlers to the south. As Phoenix’s daily temperature increased, boiling them all alive, she experienced herself in its stunning brightness as woman under siege.

But most of its Arizona scenes are set in prison.

I’m not entirely without options: Jon Talton’s crime novels; some of Willa Cather’s, including a lyrical section of The Song of the Lark set in Walnut Canyon, near Flagstaff; Abbey’s goofball, rangy, angry The Monkey Wrench Gang; lots of nasty shit in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian; Barbara Kingsolver’s early novels; Luis Alberto Urrea’s big-hearted migrant stories; Leslie Marmon Silko’s novels (even if her best-known one, Ceremony, is set in New Mexico). For the first time I live in a place where my neighborhood bookstore has a Westerns section, and I feel bad that I haven’t made time to explore it. But none of those options, taken together, coheres into a sense of place. It’s hard to draw a straight literary throughline with those authors and my home, the way I can from Nelson Algren to Rebecca Makkai, or Henry Adams to Ward Just. I’m trying to picture McCarthy and Kingsolver in a room together; what on earth would they discuss?

I’m coming to accept all this as a feature, not a bug. But it would be nice to have a more defining work to point to, if only to blunt the kind of folklore that people apply to Arizona, where reading the coastal papers would lead you to believe we mostly spend our days around here menacing autonomous vehicles, electing terrible public officials, and doing irresponsible things with water and guns. True, some of us here do those things. But people where you live do such things too, and somehow haven’t had it become defining. “There is a lot left to say in a state built on the promise of endless land and second chances,” Zoellner wrote in a 2015 article about the absence of a great Arizona novel.  If you’ve found it, let me know.

What I’m Reading

George Scialabba contemplates the latest batch of Steven Pinker-ish hey-things-aren’t-that-bad! books. Brian Morton suggests that when it comes to the bad politics of the fiction of the past, we might recognize the beams in our own eyes before we complain about the mote in Edith Wharton’s. Jami Attenberg writes about moving from New York to New Orleans, without lapsing into the usual self-pity that marks goodbye/hello-to-all-that essays. D.T. Max profiles graphic novelist Nick Drnaso, author of the excellent Sabrina.

What I’m Writing

For the LA Times, I reviewed Sam Lipsyte’s new novel, Hark, which has lots of his trademark funny lines but never quite settles on what it wants to satirize. For On the Seawall, I reviewed Greek-Swedish author Theodor Kallifatides’ memoir, Another Life, an engaging meditation on the writing life and an object lesson in the distinction between writing memoir and indulging in nostalgia. And for Kirkus Reviews, I interviewed Andrew S. Curran, author of Diderot and the the Art of Thinking Freely, one of my favorite books of the young year; it’s a nimble study of the philosopher that balances the story of his peculiar life with a close study of his provocative ideas.

End Notes

I haven’t paid much attention to Pedro the Lion for the better part of 20 years, when I was a great fan of David Bazan’s concept-ish album about a corrupt politician, Winners Never Quit. His new album, Phoenix, is about growing up in the Valley, and this video was shot there. I haven’t listened to the full album yet; maybe it’s the all-encompassing story of this place I’m looking for.

Thanks for reading. Send recommendations for which Zane Gray novel I should read first and other correspondence to mathitak@gmail.com. Buy my book. Headshot illustration by Pablo Lobato.