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.
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.
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.
Novel: 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.
Book: 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.