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 showdown between Billy the Kid and the author of Ben-Hur; 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.
This unwieldy, sometimes inspired essay collection renders the banal strange and the strange even stranger. Wheeler's hometown, Alamogordo, N.Mex., provides setting and subject for an examination of how conceptions of American identity have shifted over time. His writing is mesmerizing in descriptions of a minor league baseball game "Gordo's mascot getup is the epitome of semipro: the fins only come to his elbows" or the special suit a daredevil must wear while freefalling 24 miles to Earth. But he can also get lost in his attempts at profundity, as when the cameras attached to the suit to capture the freefaller's point of view are dubbed "a Digital Empathy Imaging System of Mankind," or DEISM, "a word we remember from our high school studies of the Enlightenment." Most interesting is how Wheeler challenges conventions of the personal essay with unexpected stylistic devices, like the onomatopoeic crack of the baseball bat to punctuate shifting streams of consciousness in the essay about baseball, or breaking the essay about his ailing grandmother attaching her shoes to her feet using rubber bands into recursive vignettes in order to show how memory revises and edits itself with each remembrance. The collection is ponderous and self-important on the whole, but punctuated by moments of lyrical insight.