Why Is There No Great Arizona Novel?

In Longreads

What Arizona needs right about now is a good novel.

Nothing else will do. Not a change in governor, a fumigation of the Legislature, a redesign of North Scottsdale, or a tripling of the education budget. While all these would be welcome, they cannot approach the curative and transforming force provided by a really excellent novel: a document that explains Arizona to itself and splits open its elusive soul.

I’m talking here about a novel with broad social contexts and a moral conscience. What Emile Zola did for the French working class in Germinal, what Tom Wolfe did to showcase 1980s New York avarice with Bonfire of the Vanities, what Rodolfo Anaya did for 1960s New Mexico in Bless Me, Ultima, what Saul Bellow did to rearrange the rowdy face of Chicago in The Adventures of Augie March, a talented Arizona author must do for this confused and troubled state.

The public dialogue in Arizona is shrill and repetitive, and the people lack vision: exactly the conditions in Mississippi in the 1920s during the period of William Faulkner’s greatest productivity. And so it’s time for a clarifying Arizona novel. We yearn for it like the soil wants water; poetic expression flourishes best in uncertain times. Someone must now make Pima or Maricopa or Pinal a version of their personal Yoknapatawpha and lift this region out of its malaise. Faulkner himself said in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech that novel writing “need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

A review of Arizona’s longform fiction since the mid-19th century shows it to be much like the place itself: assembled in pieces over the years, almost accidental, full of slapdash constructions and half-starts, occasionally spectacular, invariably concerned with the extremes of nature, pockmarked with patronizing stereotypes and burdened with contradictions regarding race and class.

“There is no defining Arizona novel,” says Alberto Alvaro Ríos, the state’s first poet laureate. “Arizona’s hallmark is individualism. And what marks our literature is that it has no overlying set of individualists. We have this insinuation here that history is all behind us. And so we echo that idea: that there isn’t anything left to say on a grand scale.”

But there is a lot left to say in a state built on the promise of endless land and second chances. Fictional dramas make us question ourselves and may force us to realize we aren’t alone in our private thoughts. And they can have munificent effects across a society. During the idiocy and misery of the Peloponnesian War, Sophocles wrote Oedipus the Tyrant to show the citizens of Athens how blind they had been, how they had neglected the real business of living.

Ours is a young state without a cohesive literary tradition. The first printing press wasn’t even brought here until the Daily Arizonian started publication in Tubac in 1859. Only a handful of major novels have ever been set here, despite an abundance of subject material. During my childhood and teenage years, I was always weirdly surprised to find a localized story. Literature too often seemed to belong to a far, rainy country, too history-haunted and pedigreed to bother with a place so fresh and new and banal.

This is not an essay about distinguished nonfiction books of which Arizona has many: John Wesley Powell’s journals, Richard Shelton’s Going Back to Bisbee, Charles Bowden’s Blue Desert, George Webb’s autobiography. This is instead about made-up stories, which have the power to expand the consciousness and lift the spirit like no act of the Legislature ever could.

Before we can move forward, we have to understand the ground we’re standing on. Here is a review of past candidates for the “Great Arizona Novel.”

Gregory McNamee
Gregory McNamee (Marianne Banes McNamee)


A good place to begin is with a novel about some migrants, written by an author who never spent significant time here. Since Arizona’s character has been determined far more by snowbirds and carpetbaggers than by its natives, it seems appropriate that Brooklyn Magazine last year named Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy the best novel of this state even though less than 71 pages clearly take place here (the bulk is set in Texas and Mexico).

But these are 71 unforgettable pages. McCarthy fictionalizes the story of the Glanton gang, a real-life band of marauders who were paid to scalp Apaches and then start inflicting their deep haircuts on Mexicans and then anyone else unfortunate enough to wander into their line of sight. After wandering through Sonora, they pass up through the Santa Cruz Valley and over to Yuma where most of them are slaughtered by vengeful Indians, but not before McCarthy clobbers the reader with his tortured and bloody syntax. “The man in the floor was dying and he was dressed altogether in homemade clothes of sheephide even to boots and a strange cap,” goes one typical glimpse. An Arizona campfire is also the scene of the novel’s intellectual climax in which The Judge, a nihilistic character as enormous and hairless as a giant baby, offers his thoughts on the inherent violence of the universe: “War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him . . . War is god.”

The book has been called “the ultimate Western,” “an anti-Western,” a critique of Manifest Destiny, or a scream of outrage against God’s tolerance of evil. Distinguished state historian Thomas Sheridan has praised McCarthy’s “hallucinatory clarity,” which he likens to “an Old Testament prophet on mescaline.” Yet its themes are too bleak and its moral grammar too restrictive to capture the full spirit of Arizona, which occupies a thin slice of the novel’s action.

Another contender for “The Great Arizona Novel” also concerns itself with indigenous people, except in a much gentler way. Laughing Boy by Oliver La Farge won the 1930 Pulitzer Prize in fiction, though it is rarely taught today. La Farge was a Harvard man who went West and developed a fascination with the Navajo, who already had been long-marched and were then in a time of economic upending, when raising corn and sheep was giving way to selling silver trinkets to the Santa Fe Railroad and receiving whiskey in return.

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The plot concerns a young athlete named Laughing Boy who falls in love with a boarding school student named Slim Girl. If nothing else, the nature writing is first-rate, as in a scene where Laughing Boy takes his future bride to a far northern Arizona promontory with a view he says “hits him the face” and makes him serene, even though she cannot comprehend what he sees. “It was red in the late sunlight, fierce, narrow canyons with ribbons of shadow, broad valleys and lesser hills streaked with purple opaque shadows like deep holes in the world, cast by the upthrust mesas.”

Trouble comes soon. Laughing Boy represents the unbowed aboriginal, but she comes from among “the Americans,” without much sense of herself as a Navajo. Her neighbors are surprised she can even weave a competent saddle blanket. In a plot twist so lightly introduced that a careless reader might miss it entirely, Slim Girl is shown to be in an unhappy prostitution arrangement with a white man. Then she is killed by casual gunfire from another jealous man’s rifle. Laughing Boy has to purify himself through a self-abnegating ride into the wilderness and a series of Navajo prayers.

Though it ends optimistically, the novel anticipates the later Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in its portrayal of a man’s heart being torn by the gradual colonization of his world, upsetting the harmony roughly translated as hohzo. At points La Farge reverts to sentimental anthropology (“among his people, corn was a living thing”) but it remains a canonical Arizona novel for delving into the interior lives of the Navajo, who should be among the state’s best-known people but still remain among the most occluded.

Young Native men turn out to be a major preoccupation of ambitious novels about Arizona. The innocence of noble savagery? The incorrosion of youth finding a racial parallel? Whatever the case, one can flash-forward most of a century to find another fine — if not quite Great — novel in the Laughing Boy geography, written in a warmer and more personal voice than La Farge’s cool prose and with themes more buoyant than operatic.

The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint by Brady Udall is a David Copperfield story of a 7-year-old boy on the San Carlos Apache Reservation who, having been conceived by an inept rodeo cowboy and his 18-year-old Apache girlfriend after a weeklong fling at the Wigwam Motel in Holbrook, nearly dies when a “bird-boned” mailman runs over his head and is brought back to life by a stubborn reservation doctor who delivers “twelve solid hammerblows” to his chest before turning him over to a Phoenix hospital — and then pursuing him for years in a creepy quest to adopt him. A trail of comic episodes follows Edgar through a series of bad schools and a Mormon adoptive family in Utah, even as he realizes part of his life’s mission is to travel to Pennsylvania to absolve the mailman from guilt. In its whirligig of characters and generosity of spirit, it stands as a fine novel. But its wanderings make it not the great Arizona novel it could have been.

Alberto Rios, Arizona's poet laureate
Alberto Rios, Arizona’s poet laureate (Andy DeLisle/ASU)

Understanding Arizona’s tradition of the novel invariably leads a reader to the dime Western novels that had their heyday between 1910 and 1940, as the remnants of the frontier were dissolving into a fever dream of railroads, dams, copper mines, and telephone wires. Americans seemed to recognize they had slain a wildness inside the continent — perhaps inside their collective selves — that could never return. And so they sought to make a wordy monument to the chaos and violence they had recently quelled.

The king of the Arizona pulp authors was Zane Grey, an apprentice dentist, amateur baseball player, and serial womanizer from Ohio who helped invent the tradition of mass-market Western fiction after the turn of the 20th century, at a time when the Indian Wars had sputtered out and most every town west of the hundredth meridian had secure railroad connections and law enforcement. After studying Owen Wister’s 1903 cowboy novel The Virginian for pointers, he took a hunting trip to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon in the company of a showman named Charles “Buffalo” Jones and then began to churn out novels and pulp magazine stories at a febrile rate. He wrote several of them in a cabin outside Payson.

“What strange subtle message had come to her out of the West? Carley Burch laid the letter in her lap and gazed dreamily out the window.” The question that opens Grey’s 1921 novel The Call of the Canyon could stand as a one-book summary of his considerable life’s output, which concerned itself with strange “messages from the West,” with the intended effect of causing readers to look dreamily out of their own windows with thoughts of sage and cactus.

No gunfire is exchanged in Call of the Canyon, only smoldering glances and misunderstandings as citified Carley takes the train out to Oak Creek Canyon to pursue the love of Glenn Kilbourne, a war veteran who finds the high desert a tonic for his broken body and spirit. After a few catty misunderstandings with a voluptuous ranch girl, Carley wins her man. Grey’s plots were never models of sophistication. What mattered more was man’s realization of the magnificence and even horror of nature, which is like a hornbook for humanity. In a moment of romantic despair, Carley goes out on horseback and climbs “a stupendous upheaval of earth-crust, grown over at the base by leagues and leagues of pine forest, belted at the middle by vast zigzagging slopes of aspen, rent and riven at the heights to canyon and gorge, bared above to cliffs and corners of craggy rock, whitened at the sky-piercing peaks by snow.” The greatest perorations of Grey are not reserved for human dealings; these are the province of Arizona’s land alone.

The disappearing frontier and its victims are at the heart of two minor Arizona novels of the pulpy tradition, both flawed but worthy of remark for the light they shone on marginalized women. Filaree by Marguarite Noble begins with a pregnant and resentful wife named Melissa riding in her husband’s wagon toward the Roosevelt Dam and feeling as “bloated as a dead cow.” Melissa goes on to fall in love with a ranch hand — only occasionally a good idea in books like these — and then move to Phoenix, where her boozehound husband abandons her with the terse note Gone to Texas. She ends up running a boardinghouse in downtown Phoenix (as my own great-great-grandmother had done in the 1920s) and epitomizing the modest, low-growing desert plant of the book’s title. Filaree is a wandering novel, but it echoes a slew of nonfiction memoirs from Southwestern pioneer women like No Life for a Lady, Woman in Levi’s, and I Married Wyatt Earp that constitute an important genre in Arizona literature.

All of them are better known than Dark Madonna by Richard Summers, which has been called the most important novel about Tucson that nobody has ever read. Some of its exaggerated racial tropes would never survive the heat of a modern edit, but it was an early naturalistic treatment of life inside a Latino barrio that did not romanticize or pull punches about the effect of poverty on the state’s neglected population. Published in the grim Depression year of 1937, it tells the story of Lupe Salcido, the pudgy daughter of a speakeasy owner. She yearns for a real boyfriend but encounters only abuse and neglect at the hands of both Anglo and Latino lovers before trying to leave Tucson for better climates in a final scene with notes of Steinbeck. “Primitive and warm,” announces the misleadingly pulpy jacket, “she lived for loving.” While Dark Madonna suffers from overwrought dialogue and is not a true candidate for the Great Arizona Novel, it nonetheless explored territory on the eroticized margins that almost every other author of the time was afraid to travel.

Photo by Kevin Dooley


Tom Zoellner
Tom Zoellner is the author of five nonfiction books, including The Heartless Stone, Train, A Safeway in Arizona, and Uranium. His writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, Time, Foreign Policy, The Daily Beast, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and he has reported from Rwanda, Angola, Bolivia, Peru, Brazil, Russia, China, Japan, India, South Africa, Israel, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, and Serbia. An associate professor of English at Chapman University, Tom lives in downtown Los Angeles.