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This is a non-fiction entry—Desert Reckoning by Deanne Stillman—because sometimes I feel a real world out there in the so-called "second-hand experience" playing field. I've always been fascinated with the number of eccentrics who wander into the desert. You'd think recluses would favor the forests for its easier concealment instead of a landscape where you can be seen for miles. A forest will also take care of you, whereas a desert begs the challenge for simple survival. Author Stillman didn't tell me much I didn't know about desert rats and/or enduring three-digit heat, but she did lay down some interesting yesteryears on the Eden that was Southern California.

Between the history lessons, this book pegs the paper with the depressing odyssey of Donald Kueck, notably his cold-blooded, fourteen-bullet unloading on a well-loved deputy sheriff in the Mojave Desert north of Los Angeles. Donald was emotionally volatile, mentally delusional, and physically paranoid of all things institutional. He's seen as incapable of the societal blend, but not a complete wasteoid—although he went to prison for gut-slashing someone with a box cutter—just a troubled one, especially over the alienation and overdosed death of his son, Jello. Yeah, I know, Jello? But actually, I found his story quite interesting and one of the saving points of the book.

But Desert Reckoning's highlights of the past are suspiciously weightless and brow furrowing. I mean, author Stillman informs us about the DAR's 1928 placing of statues called the Madonna of the Trail to honor female pioneers as a tie-in to a down-and-out modern mother's hardships. The referenced monument is a county away from the grounded action in Riverside, just as 19th century, life-threatening, frontier hardships are incomparable to the traumas of teenagers, mall-crawling, cyber-overwhelm and suburban living. However, the tainted history of Antelope Valley with its real estate entrepreneurs, commune gurus, Uni-bomber-type eccentrics, and rocket men, does make interesting reading. I didn't know, for instance, that Aldous Huxley "moved to the region and regained his sight"(Nation Books, ISBN 9781568586083, c.2012, p.41).

I went to high school in the "Inland Empire, that strangely named California region that is a corruption of a vanished real estate dream"(p.94), and I can tell you it was never that.(1) My family pioneered the area in citrus grove farming, only to see the trees fall to "parking lots and shopping malls" in the 1960s. Believe me, that real estate dream was fully realized. Concerning the other "facts" of author Stillman's SoCal: many feel along for the ride as ego tourists, or to justify copious research. These socio-analytical place mats—like her glib insights about Bob's Big Boy restaurant selling familial harmony in the form of greasy clogs of burger meat—burble the 1993 reunion between Donald Kueck and his children and bungle the distinction between personality and product.

While the cover calls this excursion the "biggest manhunt in modern California history", the account never tells us how one fucked-up guy with a dying cell phone and an assault rifle could evade hundreds of law enforcement officials in a cordoned-off area for seven days. There's reference to Castanada's Second Ring of Power, tongue-in-cheeking it that Kueck's magical skills driven by a “mishmash of pathways and crackling neurons”(p.244) could render evasive help from the desert power animals. There is mention of a tunnel system under the Mojave dirt similar to the infamous Cu-Chi underground labyrinth of Vietnam, or the Hopi legend of the Lizard People in their catacombs under the city of Los Angeles.

The read achieves some objectivity, but there's just too much speculation about the desperate and despairing lives of the lonely, damaged people involved. A concluding emotional miasma of pity, frustration, exhaustion and unreasoned wastefulness is unavoidable, if any readers' empathy can be mustered up for the losers of this disaster. In the end it becomes a deplorably-familiar story: suicide-by-cop, with an overwhelming number of caffinated lawmen and a single negotiator hundreds of miles away, and an urban assault tank spewing enough jelly fire to burn everything—including one poor bastard named Donald Kueck—down to the bedrock.


1) but, to finish the quote, "the whole thing ends where a warehouse runs into the desert and people go shooting"(p.95) is a much more accurate statement.


© copyright 03/03/2012 by Larry Crawford

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