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Acid West

9780374535803 fc
Paperback, FSG Originals, 2018
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Joshua Wheeler

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A rollicking debut book of essays that takes readers on a trip through the muck of American myths that have settled in the desert of our country’s underbelly.


Early on July 16, 1945, Joshua Wheeler’s great grandfather awoke to a flash, and then a long rumble: the world’s first atomic blast filled the horizon north of his ranch in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Out on the range, the cattle had been bleached white by the fallout.


Acid West, Wheeler’s stunning debut collection of essays, is full of these mutated cows: vestiges of the Old West that have been transformed, suddenly and irrevocably, by innovation. Traversing the New Mexico landscape his family has called home for seven generations, Wheeler excavates and reexamines these oddities, assembling a cabinet of narrative curiosities: a man who steps from the stratosphere and free-falls to the desert; a treasure hunt for buried Atari video games; a village plagued by the legacy of atomic testing; a lonely desert spaceport; a UFO festival during the paranoid Summer of Snowden.


The radical evolution of American identity, from cowboys to drone warriors to space explorers, is a story rooted in southern New Mexico. Acid West illuminates this history, clawing at the bounds of genre to reveal a place that is, for better or worse, home. By turns intimate, absurd, and frightening, Acid West is an enlightening deep-dive into a prophetic desert at the bottom of America.


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An excerpt from Acid West

SNM


An Introduction


Beyond Deadman Canyon but just this side of Purgatory Canyon lies the Sleeping Lady. I watch her from the yard of the haunted house where I’ve been staying since coming home again like I can’t quit doing because I can’t quit leaving. The Sleeping Lady is a formation of peaks and mesas and ridges in the Sacramento Mountains that spoon this house. She is made of our mountains, her rocky breasts presiding over town, over the whole of our desert basin, the peaks of her chin and nose in the clouds, striations of limestone and sandstone in a cliff of tremendous hair flowing behind her. During the days, I lie in the yard, burning out the ghosts, taking summer heat to the core as a reminder that what ever the intensity of what ever series of thoughts I’ve worried down to a single shooting pain in my brain or chest or ass, it is not real. After an hour, when the sweat has stopped, the mirage literally rises out of my skin. If there is a god of infinite love and scorn, it is the New Mexico sun, and so I lay myself bare before her, getting it all off my chest, letting it all hang out, a lazy naked prayer, but there are few neighbors this close to the mountains. There is only the Sleeping Lady. The mirage rises from her too. Together we bathe in the rays of our Lord like a couple of rattlesnakes cooking the night’s cold hex from our veins. This house is haunted because Granddaddy died here, because Grandmommy went blind here and lost her mind here, enough to finally get wrenched from the only place she could still navigate by memory, haunted because seven generations of my blood have run through this desert basin at the feet of the Sleeping Lady but now this house is empty except for me and I hear a strange sound that crescendos when the sun goes down. 

This house is haunted because it is home, because I am home but am leaving again soon and that makes it feel haunted too, haunted by me. I grew up in this house as much as my own, which is just down the street, where Grandmommy now lives out her last days with my parents, confused about my relation to her. It is strange to have swapped like this, to see her in my old bedroom, to be surrounded by her whole life in boxes waiting to be dumped or sold or donated, to spend nights on the floor of her old bedroom, tossing and turning because there is a sound that won’t quit, a hum or a drone, getting up at all hours to unplug all possible culprits, navigating around the boxes of Bibles and needlepoints and sheet music and so many framed photos of Ronald Reagan, trying to get at lamps and fans and the refrigerator, cutting their power, circling even outside the house with an ear to the ground, hopping around from all the cockleburs impaling my feet as I fail to discover the sound’s origin and finally collapse again inside, eyes bugging and spine like a tuning fork resonating with the ungodly frequency, making my blood run with it, the sound I increasingly suspect is the stirring of the Sleeping Lady.

I began lying with her when I was young, when she was all majesty and no stir. From the couch in the living room and from the top of the playground slide at Heights Elementary and from the roof where I sat with Granddaddy counting stars or shooting fireworks or watching the horizon turn to haze and static when a windstorm filled the air with sand from the white dunes west of town. From these vantage points I could lie on my side and close one eye and stretch my arm out and it’d look like I was holding her, resting next to her and keeping her close, not desperately but just sort of lounging, draping one limb nonchalantly over my big mountain lady. 

They did not always call her a lady. At first she was only Steamboat Ridge. The desert made my ancestors thirsty for anything nautical. Or they were prudes who didn’t hanker to live in the shadow of breasts. But haven’t we always feminized the land, out of hope it is fertile? Please perpetuate and sustain us, Mother Earth. It is hard to suckle at the teat of a steamboat. We long to be coddled, but also seeing ourselves in the land is a defiant declaration of victory. Which of us won in that ancient battle against nature? You, mountain, are in our image. See our conquering queen rest. Still, from some angles around town, the Sleeping Lady disappears, leaving only the outline of a steamboat’s smokestacks looming over our home. And anyway, these days, rising out of the Sleeping Lady’s forehead: a cluster of steel cell towers and broadcast antennas. 

When I say home , I mean this town, but also I mean all of Southern New Mexico, the cities and villages down here spread out but stuffed into the same feverdream of the underbelly. When you hear I’m from New Mexico, you may have visions of saguaro, towering green beacons of lawless freedom, but there are no saguaros here. You will only ever see a saguaro in New Mexico if you are high on drugs. They do not grow here, but no one believes us. They are your icon of the West. For us they are signposts of a myth we didn’t make, tentacles of the hallucination. When you hear I’m from New Mexico, you may have stories of Albuquerque and Santa Fe and Taos, the famous towns up north. There is no easy way to explain that here in the underbelly, south of the 34th parallel, which cuts the state in half, things are different. We use the abbreviation SNM for our home, and maybe that is a good explanation, how there is something awkward but accurate in the way it comes off the tongue like S&M. Most of us SNM- ans feel some pride or gratification in the way our half of the state is robbed or abused or forgotten entirely— like it makes us the better half because we endure the most f iscal pain or Border Patrol harassment or tourism- department shafting or general ignorance about our existence. We are just the bottom. And we like it. But I guess this feeling of plea sure about the pain inflicted by one’s place of origin is not unique to SNM and most folks likely feel a bit sadomasochistic about their home region. We are just lucky enough to get that feeling caught up on the tongue whenever our name is shorthanded by mouth. Grins and sideways glances abound anytime someone mentions SNM Power Company or the Ballard- esque SNM Speedway or the probably more accurate than we realize SNM Surgical Associates or, my favorite, SNM Human Development, which is a rehab where you go to get set straight for doing too much of the bad things that make you feel good. You have always been a very bad boy if you are at SNM Human Development.

Or maybe I should tell you the motto of our desert is Land of Mañana, which we mean to signify that we are laid- back, that everything will happen in good time, that there is no rush, we will get around to it tomorrow. Today is for siestas. But Land of Mañana is also the sense that time here is folded over on itself. Today we are the land of tomorrow. As soon as you cross below the 34th parallel, you feel yourself projected in this way, made polyphonic in time, experiencing at once all the epoch- making wonders born of the underbelly: the Apache and conquistador and cowboy, rocketry and atom bombs and ETs, Firebees and Hellfires and spaceships. Our lady of the mountain has slept through it all. But now she stirs. 

If I tell you I hear the noise of this land, you will think about the twang of country guitar or the horns of mariachi or the pulsing falsetto of peyote song or just the evening screech of coyotes. The howl of a wolf. The scratch of sandy wind through ocotillo. And surely all that still echoes, but these nights there’s something new, a noise of vacillation, resonating on the brink of chaos, a wavering: a wobble, deep and electronic. Here in the underbelly of the West where so much of our land is grayed out on maps because our military installations require secrecy or because we are in an unmappable warp or wrinkle or glitch— here be desert dragons: the Sleeping Lady wobbles. 

I mean wobble as a metaphor for that feeling of polyphonic projection but also as the literal sound, like the sudden walls of synthetic bass ubiquitous in dance music these days. The drop, they call it. A digital wobble that comes from a failure to emulate the sound of an electric bass guitar, which itself failed to emulate the sound of an acoustic bass guitar, which itself failed to emulate the sound of an upright bass, which itself failed to emulate the deep sounds of our ancient instruments that harnessed wind, the sound of the wind itself whenever the earth stirred or shook or broke and made us cry out for a god. A failed emulation of a failed emulation of a failed emulation of a sense of existential loneliness. She wobbles with echoes of that ancient blast catching new wind, the sound of us shocking it back to life again and again with our newfangled paddles and knobs and buttons and screens— gadgets— keeping it booming, beating, just barely breathing, radiating out from deep inside the Sleeping Lady. The Apaches, who have wandered her mountains longer than any of us, use just one word for what our language breaks into separate notions. Ni’ means land. Ni’ means the mind. Ni’ means earth and consciousness. Ni’ is the revelation that memory and joy and sorrow and prophecy do not exist without geography, are nothing but geography. Did you know “revelation” is what our word apocalypse used to mean? The Sleeping Lady knows something. She wobbles with apocalypse. 

She was struck by lightning a few years back. Seventy-five acres of her chest caught fire. The sheriff got swamped with calls. There’s a giant woman on fire! The Sleeping Lady is smoking trees! Those tits are looking mighty hot today! The Smokey Bear Hotshots came with Pulaskis and chain saws, dug line around her shoulders and dripped flame from their buckets and burned her more to save her from being engulfed entirely. I search for her scars as we bathe in the rays of our Lord, but they are gone. 

If ever snow comes our way, it sticks only to her. Then we say she has slipped into a wedding gown, we confuse her with the Lady of the Sands, an apparition that appears on the other side of town when the wind kicks the gypsum dunes of our White Sands into the ghost of a wandering woman, widowed on her wedding day, searching for her murdered groom or the conquistadors who gutted him. In the snow, our grieving sand bride transforms into a mountain, to rest. The white gown is lovely, but we know from our myths it means only that she is hungry for revenge. There are no ghosts in the underbelly, only unfinished stories. There are no horrors other than the familiar ones, made unbearable by our hunch they have no end. 

The Pueblo, who have wandered this desert longer than any of us, have in their Tewa language a name for the force of existence, the genesis energy coursing through everything in this desert: po-wa-ha , flowing through animate and inanimate alike. “Water- wind- breath” if you want to be literal about the translation. Don’t be. No words mean what they should. 

One day I’ll meet a boy named Yogi in an asylum in Juárez. He’ll touch things, pet them really, all objects and plants and people, touching almost like a DJ scratching and twisting and fading everything around him up and down, in and out. He traces po-wa-ha , and some days I’ll convince myself he commands it. I close one eye and stretch my hand out in front of me and run my fingers through the Sleeping Lady’s cliff of hair and down to her noble thighs. I try to twist the mournful synth into a shriek. I try to mute it, try to change it in any way at all. I fail. Po-wa-ha is in the desert and the mountains, the cottonwoods and ocotillo, the people and rocks and sand and snot and bison and then also in the conquerors and their horses and cows and guns and snot and their guns’ cracks and bangs and smoke and then also in more conquerors and horses and guns and also their bombs and missiles and drones and the cracks and bangs and smoke of all that too. Po- wa- ha is deep like bass because it is our rhythmic foundation, but now it wobbles, the harsh pulse of the Sleeping Lady skipping beats, the throb of her entrance music, bass so strong you can see its waves coming like the aftershock of a bomb. Did you know our brains evolved to hear all notes in relation to the lowest pitch? And here it is: the underbelly of the West, our manifest hallucination, the lowest pitch of the American myth, the sound of the unfinished story that keeps me up at night, that gets me naked in the yard with the mirage rising up out of my skin, waiting for a time the Sleeping Lady wakes for good, all the loose ends of SNM ghosts coalescing, the rattlesnakes and coyotes and the last of the endangered jackrabbits tumbling down her torso, the yuccas flung from her arms like a million tiny daggers, her standing and shaking out a cliff of hair, looking rough from being ripped asunder outside time, slouching through the basin as she slops war paint over her barbwire stitches, pulls a space helmet down over her alien eyes and settles a cowboy hat on top of everything, kicks up mushroom clouds of white sand with every step as she walks through the underbelly headed not into the sunset, but for it— looking to pick a fight with the god of infinite love and scorn that let us do all of this.


  • "Acid West is a freaky, stylish, heart-cracking-open book about the beautiful and bonkers badlands of the Southwest. Josh Wheeler’s essays throb with radioactive resonance and the Technicolor brilliance of a desert sunset. I’m in awe of this book.”

    Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Gold Fame Citrus

  • “In a captivating, beautifully wrought voice, Joshua Wheeler creates precise, intuitive essays about his Land of Enchantment that reveal its haunted and marginalized history. Acid West is a protest love song by a virtuosic storyteller who makes me laugh and marvel at the overlooked wonders and weirdness of New Mexico and its borderlands.”

    Carmen Giménez Smith


  • "It’s been a long wait for Joshua Wheeler’s first book, but it would have been worth the wait even if we’d had to wait twice as long. Full of fine lines mined by a still-young writer, Acid West is worth its weight in gold."

    Geoff Dyer
  • “Reading Joshua Wheeler’s Acid West is like drinking a shot of some ultraviolet potion that leaves your brain scrambled. In these essays, America appears through entirely new goggles, as both holy and toxic, fluorescent and sepia’ed. On topics from baseball to space, the atomic bomb to death-row love, Wheeler has found a new vernacular. You could file him under Denis Johnson or John Jeremiah Sullivan, but that’d be doing a disservice to the electric, revelatory claim he’s staked all his own.”

    Michael Paterniti, author of Love and Other Ways of Dying

  • “Imagine that one night at a bar there’s an exuberantly long sentence by the novelist David Foster Wallace, and at the other end of the bar there’s a fantastically implausible story by Herodotus, and on the jukebox is an essay by Rachel Carson, performed by Queen, remixed by Baz Lurhmann. The lights go out, the floor tilts, and nine months later there’s Joshua Wheeler, a writer with a marauding curiosity whose spectacular debut collection raids American history, cosmology, family lore, Hollywood, aeronautics, video games, and even the landscape itself in order to fashion for his beloved Southern New Mexico a vision of the world that could not exist without it. And in the thrall of Wheeler’s beautiful, bawdy, and roguishly charming essays, you’re going to believe it."

    John D’Agata, author of About a Mountain

upcoming event

Joshua Wheeler at Garden District Book Shop

Joshua Wheeler discusses ACID WEST.
April 19, 2018 at 6:00pm Garden District Book Shop 2727 Prytania Street, New Orleans, LA
event website