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  • Dirty Wars: Landscape, Power, and Waste in Western American Literature
  • Steven L. Davis
Dirty Wars: Landscape, Power, and Waste in Western American Literature. By John Beck. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009. Pp. 376. Notes, index. ISBN 9780803226319, $55.00 cloth.)

Cormac McCarthy likely enjoys intellectual puzzles as much as the next genius, but what would he make of the claim that in his 1840s-era novel, Blood Meridian, the "antinomies may result in a stalled dialectic, but the text's lack of movement must stand as a function of what we might call the negative unconcealment of history." Fortunately, for those of us who are not geniuses, the author of Dirty Wars, John Beck, offers to clarify matters in his very next sentence: "In other words," Beck writes, "the screening off of the facts of conquest by landscape is as much as can properly be shown without returning to a metaphysics of transcendent revelation the text is not willing or able to perform." (61) Ol' Willie the Shake himself couldn't have put it any better.

Dirty Wars: Landscape, Power, and Waste in Western American Literature is by now a very familiar book in academia. It examines the ways popular novelists have lent insight into an important social issue—the well-documented Post World War II militarization of the American West. But as with much theory-based literary criticism, the real intent is to showcase the acrobatic brilliance of the scholar himself. [End Page 205]

Here Beck contends that the United States has existed in a state of "permanent war" for decades, and he examines issues such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the manufacture, testing, and disposal of nuclear weapons, Cold War security, and border policing. His major theme is that the militarization of the iconic Western lands represents a "purloined landscape, a space that, like Poe's letter, is hidden in plain sight . . . because it is so flagrantly before one's eyes. That which has been taken is not taken away but rendered invisible by allowing itself to be thoroughly exposed to the field of vision" (21).

In addition to his analysis of Cormac McCarthy's work, Beck studies notable Western writers such as Leslie Marmon Silko, Don DeLillo, and Terry Tempest Williams. One Texas novelist is included in the study: William Hauptman, the author of the very fine novel, The Storm Season (1992), which addresses nuclear dread and the dissolution of America's working class during the Reagan era by using tornados as its central metaphor. Beck, who is a senior lecturer at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, does not have the keenest grasp of southwestern geography—he places Hauptman's city of Nortex (based on Wichita Falls, the novelist's hometown) in the Texas Panhandle. In his analysis of Hauptman's work, Beck detects an affinity with Don DeLillo's End Zone, in that both novels "are neutralized by the imagination of a disaster promised but withheld, effecting a retardation of agency and a collapse of historical time into a simultaneously pre-and post-historical vacuum" (175).

As one might deduce from the previous quotation, paradoxes abound throughout Beck's work. He is the sort who will argue that the sun "shines benignly in our thoughts," while adding that to look directly at the sun means "we will see too much, that the horrors of that power will pour into our eyes and reveal the rottenness at the core of its celestial sovereignty" (64).

I'm of the view that some literary critics spend too much time staring at the sun, so to speak. They see duplicity everywhere, except within their own work. In his analysis of End Zone, Beck takes a moment to compare the game of football to the Cold War, but he could just as well be describing theory-based readings of literature: "a system of complex moves and countermoves that relies on its own regulatory logic, its own self-legitimizing vocabulary of technical jargon and euphemism" (161).

Steven L. Davis
Texas State University-San Marcos


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pp. 205-206
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