Escalante’s Nightmare

A review of Escalante’s Dream, by David Roberts.

I was really looking forward to reading this book. It was talked up in a big way in the literary press and it’s about a Spanish mission to Pueblo Indians in 1776 in the four corners area of the Southwest, a subject I am very interested in.

It should have been great. Instead it’s ridiculously bad. And not just in the sense of pedestrian presentation or failing to take full advantage of great subject-matter opportunity. It’s bad sentence-to-sentence writing. Almost every sentence is awkward and full of fluff words, in addition to containing pervasive logic problems. The surplusage of verbs, often in the wrong tense, and modifiers modifying nothing, and dangling observations apropos of nothing and passive voice and comically circuitous locutions all inflate the word content but deflate all the life out of the prose. All this while somehow simultaneously leaving out crucial information necessary to make sense of the narrative without stopping to figuratively scratch one’s head after almost every sentence.

This isn’t the most egregious example, but here’s what I read at the start of chapter 3 on page 57, when I realized I just couldn’t continue, as much as I cared about the subject:

“It was midmorning on September 4 when we drove into Dulce, the headquarters of the Jicarilla Apache Nation. On Labor Day all of the government offices were closed, but the Wild Horse Casino was open, its parking lot mostly full.”

He jumps from September 4 to Labor Day. Is this supposed to be the same day, or not? If it is, why two incommensurable ways of identifying it? If it’s not, what’s the connection between these two sentences? While you’re on frustrated hold trying to make sense of that, it might occur to you that September 4 is fewer than 7 days into September, and Labor Day is the first Monday in September, so perhaps September 4 was Labor Day in whatever year he’s talking about. Are we supposed to stop and go research it from an outside source, in order to make sense of the writing?

If September 4 was in fact Labor Day that year, it makes sense that government offices were closed when they drove into Dulce. Well so what? Why mention the obvious? He never tells us he has government business in Dulce, and if he did, why would he expect the offices to be open? And why contrast casinos? He never develops that, either. He orphans those half-thoughts and continues:

“The day before, as we passed through Canjilon, Tierra Amarilla, and Los Ojos, the only houses of worship we had seen were Catholic ones, as was the wayside shrine in Los Ojos whose statues of the Virgin were bedecked with flowers and rosary beads.”

Hoo boy. “The day before?” That would be Sunday, if you bothered to work this out, but you have no reason to do so until you become frustrated at the random observation concerning houses of worship, and still care enough at this point to try to figure out why he mentions this and why it’s pertinent to “the day before.” You might not care, though, if like me you’ve given up on the author making any sense, and have realized it’s not you, it’s him. But if you haven’t given up yet you might try to solve yet another unintentional puzzle. Houses of worship are relevant to Sunday, in this part of the world, but – follow me closely, here – houses of worship are visible on days other than Sunday.

And it’s “we saw,” not “we had seen.” Moving on, how can a “wayside shrine” be a Catholic house of worship? A building can enshrine something, but it can also be a brothel. A shrine can be located in a building, including a house of worship, but it can also be outside. Indeed, the modifier “wayside” suggests that’s exactly what he’s talking about here, as opposed to a house of worship. And you wouldn’t use the possessive “whose” to refer to an inanimate thing like a shrine.

The author goes on to mention there are some other denominations represented in Dulce, but why the mention? No telling. Another fact untethered to a thought, as if this were the most boring game of I Spy imaginable. In the next paragraph, he for some as yet undisclosed reason singles out the Mormon church in Dulce, and then writes:

“All over the West, Indian reservations embrace well-attended churches dedicated to the Mormon version of Christianity. Their presence always bemuses me . . . .”

When I got to this, I left off reading the book for content, and continued only for the amusement (the author would wrongly say bemusement”) of counting the number of howlers per line. First of all, the context is his observation of houses of worship on Indian reservations, but the author has not disclosed that we’re actually on an Indian reservation. We’re in Dulce, which he said was the “headquarters” of the Jicarilla Apache Nation. Indians (of all people) don’t call things “headquarters,” but in any event this doesn’t necessarily mean Dulce is on the reservation.

What does it mean that Indian reservations “embrace” Mormon churches? If by “reservations” he means the people on reservations – which is not correct but fair enough, I guess, as a colloquial usage — then what he means is that reservation Indians like Mormon churches. But this could as easily mean reservation Indians like off-reservation Mormon churches, or even Mormon churches “well-attended” by non-Indians.

Maybe, though, we can link the discussion of Mormon churches to on-reservation churches in general by imputing an archaic meaning to the word “embrace.” It could mean to enclose or to encircle. His “Indian reservation” would then be a reference not to the Indians on the reservation, but rather to the land itself. But that would mean he’s told us nothing about whether Indians are partial to Mormonism, only that some reservations (not necessarily the Jicarilla Apache Nation reservation) have Mormon churches. These are all hints of suggestions of whiffs of potential topics left dangling.

My favorite is this phrase: “Mormon version of Christianity.” I’m not interested in debating theology, but this is a pretty tone-deaf remark given the substantial disagreement over whether Mormonism is Christian.

I’m picking on a few sentences for purposes of illustration, but this kind of thing is pervasive, at least up to about page 58, the point at which I closed the book forever so I could hustle it off to Goodwill and get it out of my house. Save your money and time.

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