Land of the Free: A book review of Welcome to Saint Angel, a novel by William Luvaas
Appropriately, this review of William Luvaas’s rollickingly farcical Welcome to Saint Angel was written in the swelter of a global heatwave that broke temperature records around the world, killed thousands and brought drought and disaster. The future, it seems, has already arrived, bearing in its arms the promised gifts of environmental Armageddon and political barbarism. Within the span of a few decades, humanity has moved from a vague awareness that something wicked this way comes, to a confrontation with Earth’s sixth great extinction. We need to relocate to a better place where the water is pure and the grass green, where we can breathe clean air and raise our families in peace. But there’s nowhere left to go.
With its descriptions of a collective madness sparked by mendacity and greed disguised as irresistible ‘progress’, Welcome to Saint Angel has literary antecedents in the cynical realism of Sinclair Lewis and the paranoid desperation of Nathaniel West, plus a liberal dose of Gore Vidal in his Duluth mood. The urban and suburban sprawl of Los Angeles into the surrounding desert – shorn of its remaining Joshua trees – is the outcome of financial skulduggery and shady dealing, the appropriation of land and water, culture in the service of big money, and the trampling of indigenous rights. People need places to live, but this, this is
‘Unbelievable … Out here in the middle of nowhere.’
Mona frowned. ‘Nowhere’s the middle of nowhere anymore, don’t you realize?’
Al Sharpe, the central character and resistance leader of Welcome to Saint Angel, is marvelling at the rapid spread of McMansions over the high desert surrounding his Southern California home of Second Chance Acres, bulldozers and trucks making smooth the hills and eradicating the flora and fauna. Here, in the wilderness, a golf course will be built, its greens and lakes fed by stolen water authorized at unpublicized planning meetings held at ungodly hours. Al and his oddball neighbours will band together and fight the corporations and developers in a battle that escalates into brutal violence and comically ludicrous confrontations and tactics. The conflict is desperate for the defenders of Nature and common sense, who know that the land and the climate cannot support vast housing developments, shopping malls and highways to nowhere in particular, especially as the buildings are thrown up in such haste that they immediately begin to fall apart.
Al, shutting his eyes to promises and threats, believes at first that it will never happen. ‘They must be shooting a movie,’ he comments when he sees a hoarding for ‘Canyonlands Rancho Estates.’ ‘Raise your children under the cheery high desert sun in friendly Saint Angel.’ This is indeed movie talk, specifically Curly Bonner talk: the lure of instant community and fresh air for city-types desperate for escape, whose flight to freedom denies freedom to others, whose paradise eventually becomes a hell from which their children will wish to escape. And so it goes and so it goes.
Paradise is for those who can afford the green fees; those unfortunates who really do need a roof over their heads are not the kind of clientele the unscrupulous Ches Noonan and his co-conspirators are looking for. As Welcome to Saint Angel declares, ‘There has to be some place for the ne’er-do-wells and misfits to go’ but, depend upon it, that place is always elsewhere and far away. There is no room in Canyonlands Rancho Estates for people like Tinkerspoon, Al’s neighbour and hackerwizard, who believes anything is possible: ‘Tinkerspoon leaned conspiratorially over the fence, believing his place bugged (convinced the NSA can read our brain waves).’ It seems the secretive and all-seeing NSA has replaced the CIA as the bête noire of US conspiracy theorists: similar convictions are aired in Cathy Adams’ A Body’s Just as Dead, also to be reviewed here. ‘The fact that none of this could be proven confirmed it.’
Often, however, conspiracies really are true, especially when it comes to making money fast. Boosterism is highly selective in its boosting, so that Ches is set to make millions while native Americans and others who stand in the way of progress risk losing everything.
Welcome to Saint Angel is a rich blend of outlaw pursuit and (Nature’s) revenge tragedy, its families and communities disintegrating, reintegrating, somehow abiding. People and machines get swallowed by bottomless sloughs that spread across the land almost as rapidly as the new houses; Al’s improvised community of partisans operate like guerrillas, setting up camps in canyons and holes in the ground, their superior knowledge of the terrain their greatest weapon.
William Luvaas writes with immense verve and imagination, and has a gift for humour: Al’s pet pig Wallers possesses a genius for comic timing and porcine know-how that makes him one of the finest characters in the novel. The author is also able to describe the flora of the desert and the ways of dust and stone, water and mud, with microscopic precision. Some of this beautiful description feels excessive and occasionally repetitive in the second half of the book, so that one finds oneself skimming at times, impatient with its dazzle. Certainly, Welcome to Saint Angel sags in the middle, burdened by a welter of similar incidents when it really needs to push forward with the story a little more emphatically.
Al’s relationships with women – the how and the why of them – are entertainingly realized and tortuously complicated. One warms to Penny and Mona; there is something about them and the behaviour of their social set around the swimming pool that puts one in mind of John Updike’s Couples. Al is a widower with a close relationship with his daughter Finley, but the remote possibility that Al’s wife might still be alive puts them at odds, reinforcing the themes of distrust and suspicion that sift through the novel like dust borne on the desert air. The past is never dead; it bubbles to the surface and wreaks havoc; there is no solid ground for anyone.
Comedy, humour, farce, satire: whatever you want to call it, at its best, much of it floats on a slough of despair and fury, and thus has a serious engagement with the world. Family and community are reaffirmed by the end of Welcome to Saint Angel, but there is a warning: ‘Everywhere, the bleached bones of houses stood as monuments to greed and human folly.’
They would knock down the mountains and fill the oceans; there would be one endless city covering all the continents and Oceania between. They would name it New Atlantis or Globetown.
Welcome to the Now.
Anaphora Literary Press | ISBN 9781681143200 (pbk) | ISBN 9781681143217 (hbk) | ISBN 9781681143224 (eBook)