If you were to visit each character in Don Waters’s debut collection, Desert Gothic, much of the trip would traverse Route 95, a relatively long stretch of the original U.S. highway system that hasn’t been ironed over and corrected into a modern four-lane interstate. I-95 stretches from the Canadian border to Mexico, but the area of Waters’s concern is mostly south of the middle, along the rocky, luckless scenery between northern Nevada and the Rio Grande.
In “What to Do with the Dead,” the trip begins in Reno, a place written about with such meticulous detail that it’s obvious Waters grew up there. Julian, a crematorium assistant with a passion for painting landscapes, is tasked to deliver the ashes of an overdosed girl to her father, a half day’s drive away in Choking, Nevada. When the delivery is refused, Julian returns home, pulling off the dark highway to pour the ashes in a “quiet little piece of nowhere.” For him, “desert defined the limits of civilized space. It offered an unobtrusive canvas in which everyday matter diminished or enlarged in proportion to the day’s light.” Here, the matter in question—the dust of thirty-year-old Mary Ellis and ninety dollars of slot machine winnings—is emotionally immense, even as it becomes smoke against the black expanse of desert.
Julian is emblematic of the collection’s antiheroic ideal: a person responding to garish contradictions of the modern desert—flashing slots at the Purple Coyote casino and sagebrush sunsets—with quiet nobility. Spare and dry as trail dust, Waters’s prose captures these characters in both the blinding light and the resulting shadow of this “edge of civilized space” and, in doing so, calls into question what makes us civilized. His uncelebrated loners are in constant motion, navigating sun-soft parking lots and empty highways, teetering between redemption and ruin. Geoff, from “Blood Management,” is a limo driver who shuttles prostitutes to the clinic for state-mandated HIV tests. He’s trying to unload a box of stolen phone cards to get family heirlooms out of hock. Cye, of “The Bulls at San Luis,” guides illegals from the Arizona borderland. He gently tends the roadside monument of young lovers he’s never met. The dealer, from “Mr. Epstein and the Dealer,” traffics affordable prescriptions from Mexico to a senior-citizen community in Arizona. He hopes to buy a bitchin’ Jet Ski one day. We feel connected to these people through their ordinary circumstances and desires, but when they’re forced to operate outside the conventions of modern society, they pose the greatest questions about what it means to be civilized. Sometimes, the action with the most humane benefit requires operating on the margins. Often, it requires breaking the law.
For as universally contemporary as these scenarios are, the ageless backdrop endows the clutter—porno tapes, meth-heads, ivory-handled bowie knives—with potency. When Eli and Sutton, Latter-day Saints on a turbulent mission in “Mormons in Heat,” find themselves beholden to eulogize a member of the Beaver Rockets (a femme Harley gang whose name demonstrates Waters’s arid sense of humor), they read a tourist brochure to fill the void, comforting the mourners. It’s the collection’s last story, and by then we’re well enough acquainted with this harsh patch of dirt to understand that, against the timeless, desolate scenery along 95, we’re all merely tourists.