Devils in the Canyon

More years ago than I care to remember, I returned to Palm Springs for the first time in years for a Bold Strokes authors weekend event. It was a lot of fun–I always enjoy visiting Palm Springs–and this time I rented a condo on Flipkey (this was before Air B-n-B became a thing), which was a short walk from Las Casitas, a women’s only resort place that hosting the event. It was a great trip. We made side trips to Joshua Tree National Monument (it was cold), I had my first In-n-Out Burger, and we also took an early morning expedition to Bombay Beach, a failed resort village on the shores of the Salton Sea. People still lived there, but most of the place was derelict and looked bombed-out, post-apocalyptic.

The place fascinated me, and in the years since I’ve occasionally, idly, when in between books and other research…looked it up on line to do vague informational research with an eye to eventually writing about it. It still fascinates me…sometimes stuff will come across a social media feed, or I don’t know, some reading material will be suggested to me by the algorithms. That whole area of California really is interesting to me–more so than Los Angeles or the other more, better known, better documented parts of the state–which is also why I enjoyed reading Ivy Pochoda’s Imperial Valley so much.

So when I heard about this short story collection–and the Salton Sea was mentioned, I thought, hey let me take a look at this.

Three hours out of the hospital, his left foot too swollen for a shoe, Shane’s car breaks down. It’s July, a trillion degrees outside, Interstate 10 a gray ribbon of shit unspooling east out of Palm Springs toward Arizona. Not exactly where he wanted to go, but who the fuck wants to go to Arizona? It’s what was on the other side of Arizona that mattered to Shane, the chance that there might be another life in that direction. He never liked being on the coast. The one time he ever tried to swim in the Pacific–during a vacation with his dad, so, over twenty years ago, half his lifetime now–he was gripped with the ungodly realization that unlike a pool, there were no sides. You were always in the deep end.

It was a feeling that stuck with him, even when he was in one of those towns in the San Fernando Valley that sounded like an escape route from an old Western: North Hills…West Hills…Hidden Hills…

The Honda was the one damn thing Shane thought he could depend on. But as soon as he pulled out of the parking lot at Centinela Hospital in Inglewood, the check-engine light flashed on. A hundred thousand miles he’d put on that fucking car and not a single problem and the one time he really needed it, it was telling him to fuck off. He didn’t have the time–or the money–to swing by the mechanic considering he’d left the hospital before the nurse had filled out the paperwork for the cops, which was a problem. Not as big a problem as staying would have been. It wasn’t the kind of thing that would have the cops trawling the city for him, especially since the wound did look self-inflicted, since it was…someone else holding his fucking hand while he shot himself with his own damn gun.

And so begins the first story in the collection, “The Royal Californian,” and what a ride this story is!

This story reminded me of a story I read in college, in a writing class, by Barry Hannah–all nerves scratched raw and in-your-face. The voice is incredible, and the noir sensibility–really, what could be more noir than the desert of southeastern California?–is right there. We don’t really learn a whole lot about Shane, but just enough to understand who he is, why he behaves the way he does, and that weird sense of desperation that drives him. This low-end, low-rent motel he finds himself in, the Royal Californian, kept reminding of the Eagles’ classic hit, “Hotel California”–this was a place you check in, but you never leave. Everyone he encounters at this place–from the two-bit lawyer, the knowing bartender who’s seen too much and doesn’t care, and the mysterious clown at the motel bar–is kind of a lowlife, kind of a desperate character, and out for themselves. No one can be trusted at this hellish motel– least of all Shane. As the story unfolds we learn why he was on the road on his way out of California, and a little of his backstory…and while you kind of want him to get his shit together, everything he does indicates that he is not going to.

And there’s also a truly marvelous twist at the end, that gives this story that extra little sharpness in its edge that makes it truly memorable.

I was highly impressed with this story, and am looking forward to reading more of Tod Goldberg…I just wish I had before!

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