Paul Di Filippo Reviews Desert Creatures by Kay Chronister

Desert Creatures, Kay Chronister (Erewhon 978-1645660521, hardcover, 352pp, $26.95) November 2022.

Kay Chronister’s second book, this unforgiving, unforgettable debut novel titled Desert Creatures, follows a highly acclaimed short-story collection, Thin Places, which I reviewed for Asimov’s in 2020. At that time, I said:

Her language crisp and fresh and disturbing, blending the matter-of-fact surrealism of Leena Krohn with the cold deliriums of Shirley Jackson, Kay Chronister is an argonaut wandering through lands few of us could ever imagine, living in all those houses on the borderlands, who returns to tell of her voyages.

I can echo all that praise now, and add to Chronister’s list of accomplishments the ability to inhabit vividly and arrestingly that rarest of post-apocalypse milieus, the Doomed Desert.

Most post-apocalypse novels—assuming any recognizable landscape with citizens still exists—default to urban or suburban environments: the scrabble for life amidst the ruined skyscrapers or ranch houses. Then there are the arcadian scenarios, which find our survivors wandering across empty but often even lush fields and forests. But to plonk down ones characters in a post-apocalypse desert is a much rarer feat, perhaps because it might seem counterproductive, or too much of a muchness. Deserts are harsh locales to begin with, even in an unfailed world, and a postapocalyptic desert might seem like overkill.

The apex model of such tales is of course A Canticle for Leibowitz. Chronister’s work carries much of the same fate-blasted religious charge, except less programmatic and less linearly sane. Rudy Wurlitzer’s loose trilogy—Nog, Flats, and Quake—while not set exclusively in sandy, harsh-lit realms, has a similar vibe. More modernly, Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins, and parts of The Warehouse by Rob Hart conjure up similar vibes.

But Chronister also taps into another quintessential American art form, The Western. Like Robert Coover’s Ghost Town or Jodorowsky’s El Topo, Chronister’s tale both embodies and subverts the classic tropes of the genre.

We are in the Sonoran desert in the vicinity of Las Vegas. Civilization has collapsed: how or why, we never know. But the causes of the collapse must have been mutagenic or quantum-transformative or perhaps even supernatural. Because now the poor pitiful scrabbling inhabitants of the wasteland find themselves blending and evolving into plants or strange hybrid “stuffed men,” should they chance to eat or touch or even look at the wrong substances or organisms. At the same time, there are some humans who are “saints.” Their touch can heal or transform, unpredictably and sometimes malevolently. Meanwhile, the ruins of Las Vegas harbor a Church establishment that capitalizes on the saints, and also offers a slightly less precarious mode of living.

Our viewpoint character through an incredible hegira across these dangerous sands is a young girl named Magdala—eleven years old at story’s opening. Living with her father Xavier, Magdala suffers the birth defect and daily burden of a clubfoot. It is the fervent dream of father and daughter to have her cured by a Las Vegas saint. But the intervening distance seems nigh-insurmountable, full of death and worse than death. Nonetheless, they set out.

Early on they reach a small settlement called Caput Lupinum, which seems to offer refuge, but also hides a seductive impulse to delay. New friends and foes are introduced, all of them just as keenly and poignantly painted as Magdala and Xavier. Eventually the pair depart, with some allies. But death stalks them, until finally, Magdala finds herself alone.

Here begins Part Two, with a switch in viewpoint character. Our new protagonist is one Father Elam, dubbed a heretic by the Las Vegas authorities and exiled. He becomes Magdala’s unwilling guide, and they head for the city. But they are captured along the way by bandits. Seemingly doomed, they are rescued by the Deputy, a merciless official cyborg killer in the employ of the city. What will happen to Magdala now? Part Three resumes her point-of-view, five years later, and discloses a harrowing history that finds her revisiting the past and, incredibly, setting out for a future that is unforeseeable but full of potential.

My synopsis cannot convey the rich but arid sensuality of the storytelling, nor the wealth of incidents that Magdala and the supporting cast must face. Every page is full of tension, surprises, high emotions and, occasionally, black humor. The dialogues with the dead Saint Elkhanah and the Deputy possess a Coen-Brothers level of sardonic wit.

Here’s a sample passage, almost at random, to convey some scene-setting flavor.

Although the dregs of Vegas sprawled through miles of desert, its innumerable motels and gas stations and drive-thru restaurants and flat-roofed bungalow houses were in a perpetual cycle of settlement and contestation and abandonment. The Strip itself was walled by twenty-foot-high slabs of corrugated tin and fortified by heaps of refuse that had amassed patiently over the course of decades, scrap metal and plywood mingling loosely with broken appliances and the bumpers of old cars. One could bypass this labyrinth of garbage only by entering through a single gate, a grandiose construction of chain link and barbed wire and bungee cords flanked by a row of defunct neon signs whose muted lime greens and magentas only intimated the glories of the city beyond. This was the holiest place in all the Remainder.

Before the gate, a clump of men dripping with guns stood watching us approach, looking shiftless, impatient. When we were not far, perhaps ten feet away, one of them lifted his rifle, a narrow, sleek weapon that could have filled all of our bodies with bullets in a matter of seconds, and yelled for us to stop where we stood.

Beyond the high matters of guilt and salvation, the ultimate theme of the book is family. The family one is born into, and the family one makes. When Magdala becomes guardian to a young girl—echoing her own youth—we see that even in a hellish place, our commitments to one another can transcend and sanctify the tortures.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over 30 years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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