Andrea Reads America: Nevada

Andrea Reads America map of books set in Nevada
Andrea Reads America: Nevada

Nevada is a rich state for stories. I was pleasantly surprised by two of the Nevada books I read, just stunned by how good they were and how much they made me think. The Ox-Bow Incident and Battleborn were out of the blue successes for me. I went into them knowing and expecting nothing, and I emerged pleased, impressed, and fulfilled in the way that only a good book can make me feel.

The Ox-Bow Incident book cover

Novel: The Ox-Bow Incident
Author: Walter Van Tilburg Clark, grew up in Reno, NV
Setting: 1885 American West

Set in the wild west in Nevada after the American Civil War, and during the time that cattle thieves were hanged for that crime, The Ox-Bow Incident is an unexpected Western. It’s not about cowboys and Indians, or chasing bad guys across the open plains with dust and shooting and the good guys winning.

Instead this book is about the terrible, stupid things men will do to each other, to women, to innocent people, to their own sons, all in the name of masculinity and not appearing weak.

Most men are more afraid of being thought cowards than of anything else, and a lot more afraid of being thought physical cowards than moral ones.

In a saloon, when someone comes in shouting about cattle being stolen and a man being killed, the cowboys in the small town get angry, yelling and egging each other on about the injustices of it. The sheriff is away, and they don’t want to wait on the law because they don’t trust it to do justice, and in no time they’ve formed a lynch mob to chase the rustlers down and hang them. The mob set their faces and their posture, daring any man to not join them. Even men who know what they’re doing is wrong — that they should wait for the sheriff, that the men they’re chasing down deserve a trial outside of the reactive emotions of a bunch of cowboys — even men who are uneasy about joining this mob join it nonetheless.

We’re doing it because we’re in the pack, because we’re afraid not to be in the pack.

The problem is, they don’t have the whole story, any shred of evidence, or anything close to the truth when they set off on their lynching expedition after what prove to be innocent men.

Battleborn book cover by Claire Watkins

Book: Battleborn
Author: Claire Vaye Watkins
Setting: short stories from gold rush to modern times, set in Nevada

I don’t normally read short story collections, or if I do, I read them slowly because I get distracted between stories. Not Battleborn. I tore through this as if it were a novel. I didn’t want it to end. The writing is sharp, the characters real, the stories compelling, and of all the Nevada-set books I read, this one best captured the landscape, the people, and the feel of being in the state.

I almost didn’t read this book, because I had already read 3 or 4 books set in Nevada, but I was reading some of the Goodreads reviews, and one reviewer wrote, “Once you know whom Claire Vaye Watkins’ father was, it is impossible to forget that fact and you’re not surprised that she tells stories that are consistently tough and hard.”

So of course I looked up who her father was. Her parlour trick, she calls it. Her father was Paul Watkins, Charles Manson’s right-hand man. This is mentioned nowhere on the book jacket, nor in her biography. The stories stand without needing to be bolstered by this fact, but I admit that once I learned it, I was curious and picked up Battleborn, and I’m glad I did.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas book cover Hunter S. ThompsonNovel: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Author: Hunter S. Thompson
Setting: 1960s Las Vegas

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is probably the most famous book associated with Nevada, but it is not by any means the best. It was okay. It’s flashy and full of drugs, and I guess makes people feel cool.

I’m not sure how I feel about this book. The writing is terrific — fast and frenzied and perfectly demonstrative, perfectly showing not telling, the wild savagery of two men with a convertible car, pumped full of LSD and mescaline, various other drugs, cocaine, weed, and alcohol, on the loose in Las Vegas. Yet through the muddle and fog of all the drugs, amidst all the frenzy, the writing is sharp and clear.

In the wake of destruction these characters leave, including the drugging, raping, and abandonment of a teenage girl, I cannot call the book hilarious as so many others seem to find it. Maybe they think it’s funny because they can relate to the dumb shit things these guys do on drugs? More likely they’d tell me to lighten up, that I have no sense of humor. It’s true, I don’t find it funny to use and demean other people. I’m tired of trying to pretend it’s no big deal all the people who get hurt so that boys can be boys.

I saw this book as much more sad and bleak than it seems to have a reputation for, which makes me wonder what it’s really supposed to be about: “A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.” Is the point that it’s all a farce? There is no American Dream? That people are brutal, that reality is brutal, and that people are making shit up just as much as these two guys pumped full of drugs — seeking and seeking but never finding? Is the meaning to point out the destructive path of debauchery and that it only results in being strung out, not satisfied?

Or is Thompson really trying to say that the life these guys live in this book is a good life — that gambling and high living is the American Dream? That doing whatever you want, destroying everything in your path, and getting away with it is the true dream?

No mercy for a criminal freak in Las Vegas. This place is like the Army: the shark ethic prevails — eat the wounded. In a closed society where everybody’s guilty, the only crime is getting caught. In a world of thieves, the only final sin is stupidity.

God help us all, that’s depressing.

I wasn’t prepared to like this book, and I’m still not sure if I did. But I do respect Thompson’s writing prowess. He knows how to use words. And punctuation. He uses punctuation perfectly for pacing. He makes it all seem effortless and natural.

Life Among the Piutes book coverBook: Life Among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims
Author: Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, first Native American woman known to secure a copyright and publish in English
Setting: 1850s-1880s Nevada

Speaking of depressing. More raping and stealing and destroying and overpowering.

The mothers are afraid to have more children, for fear they shall have daughters, who are not safe even in their mother’s presence.

Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins was daughter of the chief of the Piutes (or Paiutes) tribe, a peaceful people living in the western part of what is now Nevada. Her father saw white man as a brother, and taught his tribe to welcome whites with open arms. She learned English, and this book is her non-fiction account of her tribe’s first contact with explorers and settlers, and their earnest attempts to keep peace and maintain a meager living on the shrinking land the whites permitted them to have in the years that followed.

Hopkins was an interpreter between her tribe and the white settlers and soldiers, and so she has a unique perspective of being in both worlds. If you are interested in Native American history, this is definitely a book to read.

My dad threw aside his half-smoked Viceroy with a flourish. “Okay,” he said, “hop in.” The desert air had magnetized him. Back in New York, he had looked a bit worn-out and seedy but out in the rippling heat his white sportcoat and his cult-leader sunglasses made sense.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Guest post: Nevada in a State of Solitude

Map: Nevada, setting of “Nevada in a State of Solitude” by Will Blathe

This is a guest post from Will Blathe who contributed in response to the American Vignette call for submissions. This piece originally appeared on his Cognitive Failure blog. The setting is Nevada. Enjoy!

I remember Wingfield Park. I remember green grass, which is strange for an almost-desert, but we do love our grass. The sun was out and beating down with an already dangerous strength in early May. There were a lot of people taking advantage of that sun. Many were strolling or jogging through the park. In the afternoon there were few couples; some groups of thirty-somethings with quite a lot of singletons out on break from their jobs.

I took some time after lunch to take my own stroll in the park. I walked along a concrete path near the Truckee. I saw a sign that read:


I thought about my empty pockets while I asked the man holding the sign if he had any luck at the park. He shook his head, saying, “No. IBM’s monitoring me.” He went on to marvel at how we have so many hair colors. Where he comes from there’s just blond. He added that there was no Italy, only the country of Rome. There were no jumbo jets either, no helicopters, or any such things. He told a few other facts about his other-planer life before I waved goodbye.

There was never a truer Nevadan. Independent, entrepreneurial, sure of himself in the face of everything. He took care of his own affairs regardless of the situation. And, he was alone.

This is a wilderness, drab compared to the northeast, but a wild enough place to be exciting and more than little scary. The man with the sign may never have gotten to see Lake Tahoe, but he only had to walk a few feet to see the river that springs forth from it where summer kayakers play in the middle of town. Really, it’s all wilderness from the cardboard metropolis of Las Vegas to the hinterlands of Ely or my own “biggest little city.” You are alone to fend for yourself, or, if you’re lucky, you may find fellow travelers to help you navigate the state’s strange ways.

The man with the sign sticks in my own brain. Only now his sign says “I’m a Nevadan!” And, it’s true. He’s a lonely reflection of the Nevada ethic. Here, every man is an island, each woman, alone, and every child has to fight off the dogs. It’s liberating to be free of the speed bumps that keep us in line elsewhere, but it can be lonely out here in the almost-desert.

I don’t mean to say that Nevadans are a surly lot, but Nevada is a vast space, dotted with people here and there. That’s a lot of lonely in a desert that stretches way past the horizon. Maybe that’s seeped into the Nevadan brain, stamping it with a mild case of misanthropy. Some call it independence, but it seems a little cold sometimes.

After my encounter with the wise man, I went to the grocery then home, passing a few businesses that closed down and many more that have sprung up around them. Maybe it’s that internal fight to keep moving forward, but whole new districts pop up overnight, transforming neighborhoods with little apparent planning. Restaurants erupt like Jack’s beanstalk which the locals devour like locusts. Not far from the center of town, a farm sprouted, and from it, tons of vegetables. There’s no small amount of pride in seeing that happen all about town. I just can’t figure this state, or this town, out. After nearly a decade, I’m still on the outside.

Nevada is a land of emigrants in a nation of immigrants, and the locals let you know it. Outsiders are kept at arm’s length by the middle vowel of the state’s name thrust in your face like a middle finger.

It’s Nevăduh,

goes the bumper sticker that rubs it in my face. It’s a land that takes pride in being proud.

I feel sorry for that man. But, I looked around and saw a lot of people with suit, tie, and briefcase who seemed just as isolated in a sea of change. Is this any surprise where sex is a commodity, money changes hands by caprice, and marriages last an hour? Everyday I marvel at the changes happening to my adopted home. Some make me sad with the erosion of history, but I can tell that people are happy, so who am I to judge? I worry about that man and others like him, because being alone in a place that sees the loner as virtuous is a deep hole that no one’s going to help you out of.

Will Blathe is a new and unpublished writer of poetry, essay, and prose fiction. He is learning his craft through working with online communities of writers. The writing process is his way of coping with ADD and its profound effects on life. He writes poetry on his blog, Cognitive Failure. Will is a a transplant from the Midwest to Nevada, a dog lover with two cats but no dog, and an avid fan of the outdoors.