Winner of the Stonewall Book Award/Barbara Gittings Literature Award
Finalist for the Binghamton University’s John Gardner Fiction Book Award
Finalist for the Saroyan Prize for Fiction
Longlisted for the Chautauqua Prize
"Hilarious, Devious, Original, and Unforgettable."—Karen Russell
A vivid and assured work of fiction, from a major new voice, following the life of a young man growing up, leaving home, and coming back again, marked by the start beauty of California's Mojave Desert and the various fates of those who leave and those who stay behind.
This series of powerful, intertwining stories illuminates Daley Kushner's world - the family, friends and community that have both formed and constrained him, and his new life in San Francisco. Back home, the desert preys on those who cannot conform: an alfalfa farmer on the outskirts of town; two young girls whose curiosity leads to danger; a black politician who once served as his school's confederate mascot; Daley's mother, an immigrant from Armenia; and Daley himself, introspective and queer. Meanwhile, in another desert on the other side of the world, war threatens to fracture Daley's most meaningful - and most fraught - connection to home, his friendship with Robert Karinger.
A luminous debut, Desert Boys by Chris McCormick traces the development of towns into cities, of boys into men, and the haunting effects produced when the two transformations overlap. Both a bildungsroman and a portrait of a changing place, the book mines the terrain between the desire to escape and the hunger to belong.
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About the Author
CHRIS McCORMICK is the author of the debut story collection Desert Boys, winner of the 2017 Stonewall Book Award-Barbara Gittings Literature Award. Originally from the California side of the Mojave Desert, he earned his MFA at the University of Michigan, where he was the recipient of two Hopwood Awards. He is currently an assistant professor at Minnesota State University, where he's at work on his second book, a novel.
Read an Excerpt
By Chris McCormick
PicadorCopyright © 2016 Chris McCormick
All rights reserved.
MOTHER, GODFATHER, BABY, PRIEST
Not long ago, three desert boys built a paintball field in the middle of nowhere. The idea came to Daley Kushner after his mother, a severely cautious Armenian immigrant unwilling or unable to differentiate between simulated violence and the real thing, refused to pay for her only son to be hunted down "like a mule" at the professional field in Acton. Daley didn't bother informing her that nobody, not ever, had hunted a mule. He just took his idea to the other boys, who immediately agreed to the plan. Dan Watts, whose parents owned a landscaping business, offered to borrow the necessary equipment, and Robert Karinger — whose dad had fought in the First Gulf War — had the idea to call each other by last name only: Kush, Watts, and Karinger. This gave an otherwise fun project the heaviness of what Karinger called "a life-and-death enterprise."
"Why Kush," said Watts, "and not Kushner?"
"Kushner sounds too much like my name," said Karinger. "We'd confuse people."
Nobody, Kush knew, would ever confuse him for Karinger, and what people there were to confuse, Kush couldn't say. He was just grateful to have a nickname, and ready to get to work.
This was the summer before high school. The boys biked from town to the Antelope Valley's uncultivated desert, working long days so they could get the most use out of the paintball field before classes started in the fall. The dirt from newly dug trenches and bunkers established rings of three-foot-high passageways and walls, which Karinger called "bulkheads." From time to time, they ventured farther into the desert to find and collect abandoned furniture: a plaid La-Z-Boy sofa — orange foam innards jutting from its arms — made a quality barrier along the north section; a large brass-framed mirror, cracked in places and fogged by the remnants of old adhesives, provided an interesting Enter the Fist effect from an otherwise blind trench. Other objects, including many of the shredded tires lining the nearby 138, were sorted into tall wobbling piles. After weeks of shirtless, blister-forming labor in 100-plus-degree weather, the three boys flexed and compared their newly shaped and sun-soaked muscles. Then they rode home to fetch their guns.
Karinger was the only one to bring along any armor. He owned a face guard designed to look like a World War II–era gas mask. He never wore it, though, and simply carried the mask under his arm in the desert. Holding the mask seemed to give Karinger an indisputable authority, which he used to set up the rules of the game.
"Since there's three of us, we can only do one of two things — every man for himself, or two-on-ones, rotating the lone wolf."
The idea of being ganged up on had always frightened Kush, but not badly enough to consider inviting one of the sisters — Karinger's or his own — to even the teams. He suggested they stick to every man for himself. Then, suddenly afraid, too, of never having a partner: "Or two-on-ones, if you guys want."
Karinger pressed the tip of his gun against Kush's chest. Kush hadn't read Freud yet, but he still felt a kind of thrill.
"In war," Karinger said, "indecision means death."
Watts, half-Mexican, tanned while the others burned. He offered his suggestion coolly. "Let's do every man for himself, see how it goes, and then reassess."
"Right," said Karinger. He aimed his gun a few inches from Kush's foot and fired three shots at a rock the size of a coyote's skull. He told Kush to pick up the rock and toss it to him.
"This," Karinger said, holding the paint-splattered rock in front of him, helmet still under his arm, "is the Stone of Victory. Be the first to take the Stone back to your starting point without getting hit, and you win." He placed the Stone of Victory in the crook of a Joshua tree's arm.
The three stood back-to-back-to-back and, as directed by Karinger, took one hundred long steps each in his own direction. Then they waited for Karinger to fire his gun in the air — the designation of the start.
* * *
Also not long ago, though more recently, I got an email inviting me to a baptism that would take place in my hometown, the Antelope Valley.
The baby to be baptized was a boy whose father happens — or happened — to be an old friend of mine from childhood. The boy's mother sent the invitation along with an apology for not sending a hard copy. She didn't know my physical address, she explained, and I wasn't on any of the social networks. After a bit of investigation, she found a blog I'd contributed to, and an email address. She signed off:
Hope to see you, Jackie (Connolly) Karinger
For some time after reading the message, I wandered around my apartment, thinking of little else. This was the second piece of news I'd heard about my old friend Karinger in as many months, after a gulf of communication between us that lasted over five years (and never, finally, resolved itself). The other bit of news being that he'd been killed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in November. Another friend from that time, Dan Watts, with whom I'd been in slightly better touch, called in January to tell me. At one point in the conversation, Watts said: "I always imagined those soldiers using paintball guns, that the war was just a large-scale version of what we played as kids." I confessed that the same thought had occurred to me.
Still, I couldn't focus on much in Jackie (Connolly) Karinger's message other than the strange addition of the smiley face. In bed or in the shower, I'd find myself ascribing to the face some meaning, a hint at something larger, something Jackie (Connolly) Karinger might have wanted to say to me, but could not.
One day in February, I decided to take a walk to mull over the invitation. Even on sunny days, Oakland at that time of year was mysteriously wet and chilly. A used bookstore stood ten blocks from my apartment, and I didn't realize I was heading there until I was drying my shoes against the mat out front. Lloyd Alcero, an old classmate of mine at Berkeley, greeted me from the register at the center of the store. The place was small, and I could see I was the only customer.
"Hey," I said. The sound of my voice came out tinny and weak. I hadn't spoken to anyone in days. I cleared my throat and moved toward the back of the store, to a section I'd been interested in some time ago, but not so much recently: GLOBAL TERRORISM. Someone had placed a sticker of W's face on the label. Neck tilted, I scanned the spines along the shelves.
Lloyd Alcero came up behind me. "Doing research for another prizewinning essay?"
There had been an essay contest on campus a few years earlier for English majors. My submission was a piece about the effects of past wars on American fiction (specifically, Salinger's), compared to the inability of our current wars in the Middle East to produce similar results (due, according to my thesis, not only to the lack of a draft but to an anomalous combination of what I called "unwarranted-ness and apathy" as well). I didn't — and don't — know if I believed that, but the essay turned out to win the top prize: publication in Berkeley's alumni magazine, California, along with a check for five thousand dollars. Naturally, the only people who remembered I'd won were other participants in the competition, including Lloyd Alcero, who brought up the topic every time we spoke.
"No," I said. "What about you, Lloyd? You writing anything?"
Lloyd was one of those young gay men whose outlandish flamboyance and energy, inextricably linked, seemed to exhaust and straighten other gay men who came into contact with him. He was wearing a white bandanna over his forehead, and a tuft of dyed-green hair sprouted like a small artichoke from his chin. He stopped fussing with the books, happy to hear the question. "Just my novel," he said, shifting the bandanna. "It just keeps growing and growing — it's up to, like, twelve hundred pages now. My ideas keep feeding off each other."
At this point — maybe he noticed my boredom — he pulled from the shelf a book whose cover showed the burning Twin Towers. "Can you believe this September will be ten, as in one-zero, years?"
I did the math; we'd been in high school for less than a month.
"I didn't even know what the World Trade Center was," he said, laughing. "I spent most of that morning asking people why it was such a big deal. It wasn't like Britney Spears died or anything. Needless to say, I was not a bright kid."
I actually felt relieved. To this day, I cringe when I think about how nonchalant I'd been, how casually I'd treated the news. I told Lloyd so.
"Well," Lloyd said, getting back to the books. "We were just kids, you know? We were children. On the other side of the country, no less. What can you do?"
Choosing a few slim books at random, I stacked them on my arm. I felt a strange, patriotic obligation to buy something.
"You should come in more often," he said. Again he adjusted his bandanna, which I guessed was a nervous tic.
I wished him luck on his novel. "Let me know when it's ready for another pair of eyes," I said.
You could see how long he'd been waiting for someone to say that.
* * *
They were only kids, sure, but some of them dealt with the circumstances with more gravity than others. While Watts and Kush, happy to be out of class early, joked about how terrorist attacks should happen more often, Karinger focused on the long-term consequences.
"Maybe we'll get a world war," he said.
Since school had started up again, they'd gone out to the paintball field only on the weekends, and went that Saturday after the attacks. The mood was different this time — no one seemed to be having any fun. At one point during the game, Karinger, who'd Scotch-taped a miniature American flag between the eyes of the mask under his arm, started walking, without urgency and without aiming his gun, directly at Kush. Kush was so confused by Karinger's nonchalance that he hesitated to shoot. And then Karinger did what he'd never done before: he put on the mask. The gas-masked figure kept approaching at this slow, haunted pace, and Kush began to doubt the person behind the mask was Karinger at all. By the time Kush lifted his gun, he felt the sharp blast of a paintball against his right biceps. He dropped his gun to grab at the wound with his left hand, where a second tremendous pain began to grow. Karinger continued to shoot from a few yards away. He wouldn't stop firing. Kush dropped into a ball on the dirt, at which point, the popping sounds of released carbon dioxide and ammunition stopped, at least for a moment.
Watts came over, yelling at Karinger. Kush tried, and failed, to hide his crying. After a while, Watts offered his hand to help him off the ground.
Karinger said, "Why the hell didn't you shoot me, Kush?"
Watts said he'd had enough for the day. He was going home, and Kush wanted to join him. But as Watts got on his bike to leave, Karinger told Kush to stay for one more game.
"You're going to win," Kush said. "Why would I even play?"
"You've got to start thinking different," Karinger said. He'd taken off his mask now and was jabbing his fingers into the side of his head. He had the bright blond hair of an albino, and he'd recently had it shaved to military length. Sometimes Kush imagined Karinger with blue eyes, but now that Karinger was staring directly at him, lecturing him, they were clearly hazel. "Stop saying everything that goes through your head, Kush. The first step in being tough is convincing people you're tough. Including yourself. You've got to pretend you're tougher than you are, keep some shit to yourself. This is what not being a pussy is all about."
He went on to explain the rules of this new two-person game: essentially, chicken. They'd each get one shot at the other person from a certain distance before taking a long step closer. Then they'd shoot again, and step closer. And so on. The first person to quit the game lost.
"Thanks for the pep talk," Kush said. "But I'm going to pass."
"Fine," Karinger said. "You can get two shots for every one of mine. You want to get me back, don't you?"
Gingerly, Kush rubbed the welt on his hand and thought of how gratified he'd feel to give a matching one to Karinger. So he walked to his spot in the desert, thirty feet from where Karinger stood. Then he hollered, "Are there any rules?"
"You shoot twice, I shoot once. No need for masks" — he tossed his aside — "because there's no face shots. And no ball shots. Cool?"
"I won't aim for your face, but you should probably wear your mask. I can't promise anything."
"No masks," Karinger called out. "It'll force you to focus your aim."
Kush tried to swallow, but his mouth was dry. The heat had the back of his tongue scaly. He aimed his gun and shot, missing wide left. His second shot missed high.
Karinger's first shot hit Kush on the left wrist.
"Shit!" Kush said, grabbing the pain.
They stepped closer. This round, Kush's first shot missed again, but his second hit Karinger in the right shin.
"Good," Karinger called out, shaking his leg.
By the time they were standing ten feet away from each other, Kush had stopped feeling the pain. He found himself laughing wildly every time he was hit, just as Karinger did. As they stepped closer together, Kush imagined their bodies merging. The silly idea had an odd heaviness in his mind, and allowed him to feel a tickling pinch where the pain ought to have been.
When they got within point-blank range, they aimed at each other's chests.
"It's a draw," Karinger said, still laughing. "See, man? It's a draw."
Their laughter quieted down. For three, four seconds, their eyes met. Then, at the same time, they pulled their triggers.
There it is, Kush thought, doubled over in the desert. There's the pain again.
They hadn't merged after all.
* * *
I still hadn't responded to Jackie (Connolly) Karinger. Her email stayed open on my computer — I must have read it thirty times. Looking around the room, I saw on the edge of the coffee table the three books I'd impulsively purchased from Lloyd Alcero. In an effort to buy more time, I went over to inspect them:Understanding the War on Terror, After 9/11: America's Global War, The Muslim One: A Memoir.
I turned the third book over. The author's black-and-white photograph: a young woman wearing a hijab. Chin down, she looked up at the camera. Her thin eyebrows tensed, giving her face the severe expression of a distraught mother, but she couldn't have been much older than I was. Seeing her photograph reminded me of someone I'd known ("known" is a strong word) in high school. For all I knew, she could have been the same woman. Upon checking the bio, however, I learned that the author was raised not in California, but in Florida, where she'd foiled her uncle's plot to set off a car bomb at an amusement park. Still, I couldn't shake the feeling — due, I suspected, to the timing of it all — that this author happened to be someone whose life was perpendicular to mine, and that, if I were to read her book, I'd learn something about myself at that intersection.
She'd written the memoir, strangely, in the third person. It began: "For the first sixteen years of her life, Adila Atef spoke with a throaty, confident voice." By the time I reached the epilogue, I'd forgotten the book was not, in fact, a novel. The veracity of the story was re-revealed to me in those final pages, where the author converted to the first person:
Contrary to the beliefs of many — friends included — I wrote this book in the third person not for its therapeutic or distancing effects, but because it represents more accurately the way in which I remember these events unfolding, more like a film than a diary. The I can't exist in more than one place at a time, and I am here, now. Who, then, was that other Adila?
Nowhere in her story was the experience of the girl I'd been aware of in high school. She and the author were not, I accepted, one and the same.
* * *
Of hundreds of girls at Antelope Valley High, only one wore a headscarf.
She was two years ahead of Karinger, Kush, and Watts, and so they rarely crossed paths. The only reason they knew of her was because, after the terrorist attacks, she'd been harassed in the main quad at lunch, and the local media came to produce a special report. Peter Thorpe, local newscaster, along with a microphone-tethered cameraman, interviewed students on campus. He asked questions some in the community later agreed were loaded, including whether or not this girl's wearing a headscarf to school was in any way disrespectful, "considering the circumstances."
Kush and Watts — along with about fifty other kids — vied for a spot in the shot's background, making faces and flipping the camera the bird. By the time they realized Karinger was being interviewed, Kush and Watts had missed the entire conversation.
"He took my name, age, and class," Karinger said when he rejoined his friends. "I'll be on TV at seven o'clock tomorrow night."
Excerpted from Desert Boys by Chris McCormick. Copyright © 2016 Chris McCormick. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Mother, Godfather, Baby, Priest,
The Tallest Trees in the Antelope Valley,
My Uncle's Tenant,
Notes for a Spotlight on a Future President,
You're Always a Child When People Talk About Your Future,
The Stars Are Faggots, and Other Reasons to Leave,
The Costs and Benefits of Desert Agriculture,
How to Revise a Play,
The Missing Antelope of the Antelope Valley,
About The Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I really enjoyed this one. 'Desert' impressed me from page one, with its sharp, intelligent voice and engaging introduction. From there, it maintained my attention with believable characters and a strong, well-paced story, plus the author's above-average writing style, which speaks with craft and poise. Also, the book is, simply, funny; while reading in public, I laughed enough to get looks. Finally, 'Desert' delivered right up until the end, bringing together the text's multiple threads in a cleverly satisfying conclusion. And, aside from a few awkward or disingenuous moments, I found the book to be accessible and easy to read. Thus, it is a complete, functional novel, in my opinion. What I liked most, however, is an additional layer of substance underlying the text. Namely, the collective story serves as a human study, by way of the sentiment and experiences explored therein, as to possess meaning and relevance that transcend mere fiction. Consequently, the book yielded some real-world insight, leading me to examine myself, others, and the world at large, among the other beneficial ruminations awarded by any compelling piece of fiction. In a nut: I learned, rather than being purely entertained. My sincere thanks goes out to this book's author and publisher. I am grateful for, and have benefited from, your work. * * * Some notable quotes from 'Desert Boys': “[...] The only way you can change people is through forgiveness. Not prison bars, not shunning.” – p.78 “What his smile couldn't do, I didn't know. His smile seemed capable of the vital but inglorious work of removing simple obstacles from otherwise happy days – it could jump-start a car, probably, or unclog a toilet.” – p.88-89 “[...] We had a two-party political system that, encountered with a phrase like 'the largest growing demographic,' preferred to accomplish nothing, knowing that actual solutions would only hamper xenophobia and large anonymous political donations.” – p.148