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Reviewed by:
John Beck. Dirty Wars: Landscape, Power, and Waste in Western American Literature. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2009. ix + 366 pp.

Though a number of recent works have reimagined portions of the postmodern literary canon as exercises in critical historiography, few, if any, have articulated the existence of a vivid “counterhistory” (to use a term John Beck borrows from Foucault) while avoiding the polemics surrounding postmodern aesthetic philosophy (7). This is a deficit Beck deftly corrects in Dirty Wars. Beck identifies the period from Pearl Harbor to 9/11 as an era when perpetual war meant the population became accustomed to the notion that civil order rests on “forces that are largely concealed,” a recognition that was a “defining characteristic of the postwar world.” Beck further writes that this recognition accounts for the “grip of the hidden” on the texts he has chosen for his study (6). The only visible remnant of the hidden security state was, according to Beck, the wastes of western America—peoples and places that were displaced by the “blank spaces on the map” (126). Waste, here, becomes a target for exposure rather than a conventional poststructuralist rhetorical phenomenon. To be sure, the avant-garde logics that others have noticed in so many of the texts of this period remain intact in Beck’s readings. As he notes, post-World War II America was uniquely suited to surrealist notions of the real. With power split between a public government and a hidden military-industrial system, American life was inevitably fragmented. But the chosen texts are, for Beck, not only capable of representing that split but socially “adversarial” in their insistence on calling attention to “that which should remain hidden” (14).

Beck proceeds through his texts chronologically according to their subject matter, using his readings to write a story of the West [End Page 338] that moves from an “inaccessible prehistory” toward the establishment of an unsuspected American hegemony (56). He begins with Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which he argues ties the violence of the ancient, broken landscapes of the West to pioneer conquests that simulated the waste production of the surrounding topography in the name of “national order” (70). Beck then moves on to recently published narratives of the Japanese American internment, texts he believes transcend the shortcomings of earlier apologias that sublimated the allegedly authentic experience of psuedo-pioneer camps. In Rahna Reiko Rizzuto’s Why She Left Us and Julie Otsuka’s When the Emperor was Divine, Beck finds narratives whose continuity falters at the moment they might imply relief from the broken down traditions of Japanese paternalism on the Western frontier. These texts capture a period when the West was consolidated as a repository for waste populations—those, finally, not really American, though their lives in the camps were often contextualized using mythology of the American West.

Following internment, Beck moves on to the nuclear project at Los Alamos, a security program that withdrew large swaths of the Southwestern desert from the public gaze, and following the 1945 Trinity Explosion left toxic wastelands at its margins. The tests at Los Alamos signify a metamorphosis for Beck—the transformation of both terra firma and social life in a manner that would dominate the collective consciousness for sixty years. It is this essential transformation that guides the remainder of his study. Beck writes that “social and psychological injury” tied to physical destructiveness tends to characterize Los Alamos novels (103). In Thomas McMahon’s Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry and in Bradford Morrow’s Trinity Fields and Ariel’s Crossing, “the mix of intensely symbolic landscape, the machismo of hard science, the ruthlessness of modern warfare, and its insinuation into the social fabric characteristic of the project coalesce to produce a nuclear subjectivity conceived in and damaged by a climate of secrecy” (104).

It would be impossible to mention in any detail the approximately fifty texts that are included in Dirty Wars. Beck reads Don DeLillo’s End Zone and Underworld, the remainder of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead, to name just a few texts by more well-known authors. Beck also comments...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 338-340
Launched on MUSE
2011-06-04
Open Access
No
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