Desert Boys’: Snapshots of a life in defiance of—and in weird love with—its roots

Heather Scott Partington

Four stars

Desert Boys By Chris McCormick, $25.

People “don’t know how un-California most of California is.” So says the narrator of Chris McCormick’s linked short-story collection, Desert Boys. The interwoven stories show Daley Kushner coming of age in that other California, the mean landscape of the Antelope Valley. Kushner, a gay teen and the child of an Armenian immigrant mother, lives in the cruel beauty of both the desert and the small-town high school. Desert Boys is a novel in pieces, an artfully rendered collage of Kushner’s life before and after he leaves the Valley.

The book begins on an ambitious note with the shifting points of view in “Mother, Godfather, Baby, Priest.” This establishes both Kushner’s teenage friendships with Karinger and Watts—as they build a paintball field “in the middle of nowhere”—but also the tension that comes from Kushner’s crush on the straight Karinger. McCormick’s work in later stories like “Notes for a Spotlight on a Future President” and “How to Revise a Play” also show the difficulty of leaving a place but not really ever being able to escape. “It’s where I’m from,” another character says to the narrator, “but it’s not what I’m about.” Kushner is about the desert, though, about trying to understand the power plays in small communities.

McCormick’s collection jumps forward and back in time, showing Kushner’s life in snapshots. Often we know a character’s fate before a pivotal scene from childhood. This, too, seems to reflect the cruelty of the Mojave, the constant threat of death. “She was beautiful in the way people call the desert beautiful,” he writes of one girl, “which is to say that although some people actually believed it, most of the time it was said in response to someone else’s denigration of it.” The desert is always present. Kushner is at odds with his childhood, yet McCormick captures the complexity of longing for a place—and the people in that place—even though you can’t wait to leave.

Desert Boys is about why Kushner leaves Antelope Valley, but it’s really about the imprint of other people on our lives, and our memory of what we feel. McCormick writes to the specific but evokes the universal. His take is that when we try to remember anyone we’ve loved, “what we’re really remembering is ourselves.”

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