The West’s misfits and outcasts put up a fight in the new novel 29 by Mary Sojourner (Torrey House Press, 2014). By Ana Maria Spagna
Always a keen observer of the natural world, as readers of MG well know, Sojourner describes the desert as “vast, hard, and generous.” Same goes for the characters who live there. Small kindnesses define these sun-worn survivors, from the owner of Saigon Sally’s, the local Vietnamese café, to elders of the local Chemehuevi tribe. Even minor characters leave lasting tracks. A young Greyhound ticket agent sets Nell on her journey and a docent at the Long Beach aquarium introduces her to the Leafy Seadragon, a “ripple of green and pale pink, silver and translucence” that soon glides right into her dreams.
Then there are Diamond and Shiloh, the two women who run La Paloma—an unofficial underfunded home for damaged people, victims of domestic violence or hard living or plain bad luck—and welcome all comers, including Nell, with a bed, food, coffee, and conversation. Though Nell’s damage is never precisely defined, readers glean its cause as equal parts David, her ex, and her own ravenous ambition. Nell has been through the wringer, and this is the right place for her. Diamond and Shiloh put her in touch with a used ’84 Buick LaSabre, cherry red, and a “computer nerd” job at Monkey Biz, the local car repair shop.
Turns out the owner, Monkey, is experiencing visions that may or may not be caused by his liberal use of weed. Early in the story he suffers “a dope hangover meaner than a pissed off boar hog” that seems par for the course. To say that Monkey and Nell hit it off would be understatement. Their banter sparkles, their chemistry smokes. Their insular music references (Little Feat, Chris Whitley) and movie references (Spinal Tap, Life of Brian) and book references (Dickens, Silvia Plath) feel exactly like those of people falling in love. Only they can’t. Or oughtn’t.
Monkey’s married to Jackie, a relationship that’s portrayed as tenuous but tender, and Sojourner’s own generosity here—opting for nuance right when her two main characters are falling passionately in love—is one of the highlights of the book. In the end, Jackie doesn’t deserve the betrayal and, moreover, Nell and Monkey can’t withstand the power of what they’ve shared. Which has larger repercussions.
Nell’s visions of Leafy and Monkey’s late night hallucinations turn out to be part of a much larger plot as the shift in the earth’s polarity, the exodus of bees, and the real threat solar and wind farms pose to ancient sites and dying species converge. The Indians resisting development take center stage late in the novel, and anyone who’s been to a grassroots meeting anywhere will recognize them. No one grandstands. No one flinches. Not even Nell, who resists too-easy narratives with whip smart skepticism.
“She clicked on the Mayan Prophecies and considered the nature of wishful mysticism—this world is fucked, an instant transformation will fix it; no sacrifice or effort on anyone’s part required; you can keep on living just as you have, grasping and glutted.”
We can’t, of course, any more than Nell can. If there’s a message in 29, it’s this: So you can’t find your soul-mate and settle in happily ever after? You can still do what’s right and love what’s there.
With this in mind, the end of the novel is both unexpected and hard-earned. Nell’s mother, Tara, a peripatetic drunk who carted her daughter around Glass Castle-style through childhood, is moldering away in a Long Beach nursing home when Nell decides to go fetch her and bring her to the desert. Tara has little memory left and doesn’t communicate verbally, but she seems to remember the desert, to be happy there, at least Nell believes she does. And so we end with another damaged soul finding healing, at least partial healing, in a hard forgotten place.
Stories of misfits or outcasts, people running from one thing or another, are common enough in the West, and the props are in place in 29—cigarettes, donuts, a backyard goat, that ’84 LaSabre—but Sojourner shows these characters in a different light. They fight for one another, for the place they love, not in shiny sound bites, but one meal at a time, one meeting at a time, one long deep-rutted drive at a time, until it’s just a mother and daughter on the stump of a fallen Joshua Tree awaiting the moonrise over creosote.