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Incident at Mirage Wells


It is October 1957. Dwight D. Eisenhower is a few months into his second term as president, Ginsberg's Howl, Kerouac's On the Road and Dr. Seuss' Cat in the Hat have been published, the Ford Edsel and the Frisbee appear, troops are sent to Little Rock to protect nine black students trying to attend Central High School, the Milwaukee Braves are playing the New York Yankees in the World Series, on the 4th of the month, the Soviet Union launches Sputnik and two days later, a tragic, although hitherto unrecorded, incident will occur in Mirage Wells, California, a wide spot on a desert road an hour or so south of Palm Springs. The incident will involve Harrison Caldwell, a real estate agent, whose grand scheme to subdivide the desert is being thwarted, Cynthia Arrow, whose husband the desert recently killed in a flash flood, her young son, Sammy, who wanders off and disappears into the desert and two FBI agents sent to investigate Mabel Citroni, a mysterious women in white who is doing something apparently subversive on a barren plot of land that she refuses to sell and which is sitting in the middle of Caldwell's planned development. The unfolding drama is witnessed by Vince Hopper, an old IWW organizer, who has been hiding out in the ruins of a desert ghost town for over twenty years, waiting for Charlie Siringo to track him down.




Perhaps the most accomplished of Bill Albert's novels, Incident At Mirage Wells is a terrific read, marrying big themes with great characters, a compelling plot, and some superb nature writing. Breaking off midway through his bravura depiction of a desert storm, I was a little surprised to go outside and discover a mild Breton winter rather than a blast of blistering sand. It's that powerful. He also engineers a very neat mixture of the two subjects that seem closest to his heart, the Wild West of the Wobblies, and life in a small desert town in 1950s America.Telling the story of a misguided attempt to turn an unpromising piece of `wasteland' into productive `real' estate and the consequences for the characters involved (the juxtaposition of different compulsions to leave one's mark on the landscape, personified in the haplessly scheming speculator and an ethereal, preternaturally serene but tough-minded land artist, is particularly successful), the novel glosses all the themes that have made the United States great - and not so great. Dreams of escape, flight from the past, the reinvention of the self, surviving a climate that's trying to kill you, optimism, progress, fundamentalism, insularity, xenophobia, individualism and community spirit, `civilization' and the wilderness, crazy idealism and can-doism leading ineluctably to defeat, self suckering illusions and deluded conspiracy theories . . . it's all in there, particularly the last two: nearly everybody thinks they `know' what is going on - and they're all wrong!Albert's trademark wit is also present, though more subtly expressed than in his other books - usually, at least. A psychiatrist called Dr. Lipshitz isn't very subtle. It is funny, though. Slightly more subtle but equally entertaining is having a Born Again FBI agent called Claude Talson, who on at least one occasion is obliged to correct the pronunciation of his name. This is typical of Albert's writing, the conjuring of fictions invaded by historical characters, the most insidious in Incident At Mirage Wells being Charlie Siringo, who, though dead thirty years, is constantly threatening to wander on stage, and implicitly seems to have done so at the end. For fact spotters, there are also some fascinating details about Cold War paranoia. Above all though, this is virtuoso storytelling, edging you along through interweaving narratives in such a way that you're paying close attention all the time, alert to every possibility of every situation, never quite sure which way things are likely to turn and who is going to get out of this alive. And the `who' is always important. Albert has a remarkable talent for sketching people in a few pertinent lines, often fleshing out an entire life in a paragraph, a knack that I would compare favourably with that other great master of pithily presented characters, Jim Harrison. Why these books are only on Kindle and not on the paperback bestseller lists is simply beyond me. The publishing industry should be ashamed of itself.

- C. G. R. Davis

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