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A L E X A N D E R B L A C K B U R N University of Colorado at Colorado Springs FrankWaters’s TheLizard Woman andthe Emergence ofthe DawnMan Whereas our ethical sympathies adhere naturally to the bright side of life where ambiguity and paradox need not apply, some of the greatest of American writers are appalled by the ambiguous and paradoxical mask of whiteness, as Melville was with the white whale by the shudder of solitude and the chill of empty space, or as Robert Frost was with the desert of the skies and the whiteness of snow: I have it in me so much nearer home To scare myself with my own desert places. An anxious irony negotiates between the counterclaims of home and desert, favors experience over innocence, and frightens itself with landscape moods of silence and of desolation as a precondition of survival, illumination, and faith.1 Frank Waters’s first novel, The Lizard Woman (published as Fever Pitch in 1930), is informed by this motif of a nightmare journey into deso­ lation and its paradoxical illumination. Written in 1925 when Waters was employed as a telephone engineer along the California-Baja California border, the novel was inspired by Waters’s first-hand acquaintance with the Great Sonoran Desert, summarized in The Colorado as “the end of a world” (81) with a fatal fascination that “exerts the most powerful and unbreakable hold of any landscape on earth” (82).2 Waters does more than evoke the spirit of the desert, for it draws out of him an imaginary topography of myth. Thus The Lizard Woman works on two levels as a realistic report about a remote and desolate area and as an archetypal quest for the area’s meaning at depth of spiritual import. It is an imaginary voyage more akin to Moby-Dick and to Joseph Conrad’sHeart of Darkness (1898), Melville’s Pacific Ocean and Conrad’s Congo having been truly 122 Western American Literature experienced, than to such examples of the bookishly spooky and magically glaring as Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Poe’s The Narra­ tive of Arthur Gordon Pym. As an adumbration of a literary kind, The Lizard Woman isthe story of a protagonist’sjourney from the White House of home to the White Heart of a primordial and irreducible desert place and thence home again. The journey results in dislocation from history and society but also in a new sense of relationship to the universe. Although all three of Waters’s major themes—unity, duality, and emergence—are presented in the novel, Waters himself, until 1984, opposed its republication.3Still somewhat reluctant, he that year permitted a small press in Texas to print an edition with the original title and a foreword explaining his reluctance, the difficulties he had encountered as an inexperi­ enced young writer, the story of the book’s conception, and his surprise at discovering in The Lizard Woman a universal archetype that redeemed at least some of the faults. First, he explains, he had had no preparation as a writer: at The Colorado College he had majored in engineering and taken no courses in English or literature. “As a result,” he remarks wryly, “most of us engineering students were unable to write an application for a job without copying a form letter” (vi). Second, he was learning his craft in the appalling conditions of an oven-hot “two-room shack . . . in El Centro” (v). Third, the experience of the desert compelled him to write, as though he had no choice in the matter. The novel was begun in [1925], when I was twenty-[three] years old and working as a telephone engineer in Imperial Valley, on the Cali­ fornia Baja California border. During my stay there I made a horse­ back trip down into the little-known desert interior of Lower California. After having lived all of my early years in the high Rockies of Colorado, I was unprepared for the vast sweep of sunstruck desert with its flat wastes, clumps of cacti, and barren parched-rock ranges. Its emotional impact was so profound, I was impelled to give voice to...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 121-136
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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