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  • Desolation Road
  • Luis Alberto Urrea (bio)

And I proceeded to where things were chaotic.

—The Book of Enoch xxi:i

I have a gonzo lawyer friend who sometimes writes mystery novels set in the unforgiving Sonoran desert. People die badly out there, both in his books and in the landscape. Gorgeous despair rattles the land like a great serpent’s tail, warning of the deadly bite behind the greeting-card sunrises.

He lives in the progressive yet book-banning oasis of the People’s Republic of Tucson, Baja Arizona. Like many of those sun-poisoned Arizona writers, he will never leave, and he seems to hold to the belief that those of us who do leave are fallen, doomed to an eternal hell of cool weather and rain. Nobody loves the Sonoran desert more. If he had a religion, it would be: Desierto.

My daughter fell in love with this lawyer’s ears when she was two. Like a tolerant lion, he allowed her to tug at them. In spite of his shaved head, she thought he might be an insanely manly, pompadour-wearing cartoon character [End Page 152] from cable TV. She called him by that name, not his own. You can surmise that he embraced this with gusto. So for the purposes of propriety and the Arizona bar association, I will do the same in this story and call him Johnny Bravo.

“I’m their worst nightmare,” he used to boast. “A pissed-off liberal with machine guns!”

I met him when we were both broke, driving beater cars in the heat, hanging out at the Cup coffee shop beneath the Hotel Congress. We were both writing books. We thought a desert-rat writing community could gather—but that was naive. If you know Arizona, you know they love their books and their writers, and writers love it there. But the writers we had access to were Sons of Edward Abbey. They did not bond all that well—too rugged, I guess. Two separate writers I drank coffee with claimed to have eaten Ed’s last hamburger with him, and three different writers offered to show me three different places where they had helped illegally bury him, out in the “back of beyond.” The back of bullshit, perhaps. For anyone who didn’t aspire to be chairperson of the Dead-Ed coffee klatch, this literary community was a noble project doomed to fail.

Just as well—rest in peace, Mr. Abbey.

Arizona was my adopted home. Of course, this was all before I knew who Joe Arpaio was. Before Grinnin’ Jan Brewer came into office. Before the angry anti-immigrant bill, S.B. 1070 (Johnny Bravo called it the “Arizona going out of business legislation”). Before the infamous Tucson school district’s book banning that removed all Chicano and Native American texts and put them in cardboard boxes that said banned on the sides, but that the publicity flacks for the district vehemently deny was a banning. They relabeled the banned books as “boxed books.” That’s elegant. The books were collateral damage incurred when the city’s Mexican American Studies program was gutted. Not about books, man—it’s about books in brown hands.

Arizona was a daily adventure—until the food and money ran out completely. When my Mexico City girlfriend dumped me via long-distance phone lines for being a failure, Johnny Bravo—bless his heart—offered to take me into the far desert and unload a few full-auto M16 clips into the hills. “My rage is real,” he noted.

But this particular story happened later, after the ill-fated author klatch was long gone, and I was happily married and living in Chicago, and I had food in my larder and paychecks in the bank, and Johnny was my last close comrade from the Cup days, and I had a real book deal. And nobody but some proto–Tea Party cowpokes in Phoenix even imagined boxes for books. My New York editors said mine was to be the “ultimate Arizona book.” So I left Chicagoland and flew back to the desert and got to work.

I was writing about undocumented immigration and death...


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pp. 152-159
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