| If only Melville had palled around with Kit Carson instead of Hawthorne, what prose we'd have had about the American Southwest -- Ishmael wildly relating how Captain Ahab was hung from hooks cut into his chest as he participated in a Navajo "Beauty Way" ceremony. Alex Shoumatoff's "Legends of the American Desert" inspires such fantasies because his book almost evokes "Moby Dick." Almost? Well, this review is hedging. "Legends" is "Moby Dick" without a whale -- a sprawling mess of memoir, history and journalism pertaining to the "Greater Southwest" -- a region too vast to be driven across in one week, let alone covered in one volume. Shoumatoff wants to tell "the whole enchilada" about the region -- but there are so many enchiladas to choose from! He writes: "My prowls in the region essentially consisted of enclave hopping: from ... the polygamous Mormons [to] the Pueblos to the large urban oasis of Albuquerque, the lesbian commune of Arf, the fantasy bubble of Santa Fe, [and] the top-secret nuclear weapons laboratory at Los Alamos."
The author also "prowls" through such subjects as Billy the Kid, water politics and Southland drug deals -- passages that evoke more thoroughly prowled works, like Robert M. Utley's lively "Billy the Kid" and Marc Reisener's water-politics tome "Cadillac Desert," as well as the desert drug noir reporting of Charles Bowden. Yet while Shoumatoff short-shifts Billy, he splendidly analyzes desert minutia such as the horticulture of tumbleweeds and the history of barbed wire. A reader might better appreciate Shoumatoff's research if the book opened with his epilogue. Then you'd know right off the bat that he took years and years to finish the manuscript, going through eight editors -- including William Shawn and Sonny Mehta: "By 1992 my advance had run out and I found myself in the awkward and stressful situation of having to support myself and my family solely by freelance magazine writing. Each ... magazine project would buy me two weeks ... to work on the book." Once you know this, who cares that the book doesn't entirely hang together?
Ironically, the best writing in "Legends of the American Desert" concerns the old Iron Curtain and a Navajo jailed for slipping U.S. military secrets to a Red (as in commie) whore: "I saw a great story of cross-continental, cross-cultural love, sex, and espionage, a lonely, frightened Indian in Moscow in the Cold War." This is the book Shoumatoff should have written. This is the book that would have won him a Pulitzer prize. But his loss is our gain. Picture the author driving the mean streets of Moscow instead of Albuquerque, where he writes, "Sometimes as I drove ... I would feel strangely light-headed ... There was a hallucinatory edge to [the desert's] everyday reality." Shoumatoff's book is a similar hallucination -- sometimes beautiful, sometimes disappointing, but certainly no Bad Trip.