Postcard — September 20, 2018, 10:10 am

Hot, Silent, and Brand New

Back and forth across the Phoenix sprawl in triple-digit heat

All photographs by Andrew Brown

My friend Andrew, a third-generation native of the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, had the notion to spend some time in and around the city during the hottest stretch of the year to see what he could see. He doesn’t know why I would want to go with him—like Dallas, Phoenix is a sprawling, forbidding, and somewhat sinister place, famously unsustainable and especially deadly to pedestrians—only that I would. And I do.

Despite the fact that nearly fifty-five thousand people travel between Tucson (where I live) and Phoenix per day, a route second in volume only to San Diego–Los Angeles, you can’t make the commute by train. Instead, I take a shuttle between airports at a cost that seems to creep up a few dollars every year and watch a man in scrubs in the seat across from me drift in and out of sleep.

Andrew and our friend Aengus pick me up at the terminal, and the three of us drive east along the Salt River, hooking north into the Old Town district of Scottsdale, a neat little commercial district of Western-themed places and regionally denuded boutiques. As in much of the West, the word “old” fits strangely on Metro Phoenix, a place whose oldest architecture dates back only to the turn of the twentieth century but whose natural features—chiefly, Camelback Mountain, which rises from the middle of the city like a reminder—makes dating anything built by men seem pointless and vain.

To our left, subdivisions fan out with bright lawns and swirling topiaries, many of them still irrigated by flood in a region recently classified by the US Department of Agriculture as experiencing either “extreme” or “exceptional” drought––though I concede that the topiaries are beautiful in their own unapologetic sort of way. We head into a subdivision called Scottsdale Ranch and park at the intersection of North 98th and North 99th Streets. I make a joke about how this isn’t how street numbers work, but it falls flat. Aengus, an oral historian and audio producer who works for a university library back in Tucson, holds his tape recorder out like a Geiger counter looking for a sound.

We round the side of a house and descend steps to a narrow concrete pad overlooking the man-made Lake Serena. The water is dyed a radiant blue, not so much the color of water as the color of how one imagines water, or the color of a urinal cake: an abrasive freshness. The dye is said to be added to prevent algal bloom by mitigating the sun’s penetration of the water. Pontoon boats loll in front of their respective yards like parked cars. I am reminded not for the last time of Florida.

Farther northeast into Fountain Hills, home of the indefatigable Joe Arpaio. A former Maricopa County sheriff accused—and convicted—of contempt of court after refusing to adhere to a federal injunction stopping him from detaining people based on race, Arpaio recently received a presidential pardon and is now making his bid for the United States Senate. Like the topiaries of Scottsdale, there is something almost dazzling about the hubris of this, something defiant of facts and circumstance. I suspect he will do okay, and if he doesn’t, he will ignore the results just the same.

We wind our way into Fountain Park and find a parking spot next to one reserved for those wounded in combat. We are the only car in the lot. We sit under a tree and watch a group of people play disc golf, a sport for which the park, if such a thing could be said, is known. Andrew occasionally runs off with his camera to catch an older man jog doggedly up a hill. It is close to 110 degrees and will stay that way until dark.

Several minutes behind schedule, a huge fountain in the middle of the park’s hundred-million-gallon lake shoots a stream of water 330 feet into the air. Built as an attraction when the area was developed in the 1970s, the fountain was for some time the tallest in the world. It is this sort of insane novelty that the desert excels at. Not to mention water––always the presence and dream of water. If we were to come back on the Fourth of July, the stream would go even higher.

I close my eyes and feel the cool mist on hot wind. Our pump at the gas station reads $75, a suburban figure.

We boomerang back through Tempe for lunch and then head east on Route 60 for twenty miles or so, through Mesa and Apache Junction, toward the Superstition Mountains. As we crisscross back across Phoenix, into the bedroom communities that push relentlessly into the West Valley, I start to notice a pattern: shopping centers, many of them not too old-looking, the sort of thing you see at regular intervals in suburbs across the country, all of them half-abandoned. The businesses that persist are marked not by permanent signage but makeshift tarps: a ministry, a karate school, a clinic for urgent psychiatric care. Then, maybe an alfalfa field someone has decided not to sell. Then dirt.

Then, just as I begin to feel as though I’ve reached the edge of the world, I see a sign for 1,260 planned units, or stone pillars framing the entrance of a subdivision still unbuilt, and after that, another shopping center that looks surreally new, as if the whole enterprise had been shaken from a dream and bolted up, screaming. During an unrelated conversation with a land and real estate developer, this phenomenon was explained to me as such: if the municipalities didn’t make it so darned hard to develop, we wouldn’t have to keep moving farther out.

The cycle suggests a kind of biological imperative. This I recognized: driving through stretches of blank desert and commercial decay only to suddenly encounter an explosion of brand-new homes put me in mind of not a planned human effort but a disease, a cancer with which we are in no meaningful communication and whose overriding purpose is to spread.

At the edge of Apache Junction, we see a truck adorned with, of all things, a Confederate flag. I forget this is the case, that Arizona was Confederate territory, but then I remember. Of course. It was here, in the Southwest, that Jefferson Davis’s experiment to incorporate camels into the US Army started, and shortly thereafter, ended.

Davis had pursued the idea for years, first as a senator from Mississippi, then as the country’s secretary of war. Camels would serve as pack animals, he insisted, agents of cargo and exploration. It worked for a little while. Then came the dawn of the Civil War, and the country more or less let the camels go. Some were auctioned off, some carried mail, and some were reportedly killed by soldiers on account of being hard to get along with.

Others, as it happens, were used to help build portions of the transcontinental railroad, honoring—at least in an oblique way—Davis’s original intent. I can see them out there in the sun, agents of their own obsolescencethe instruments that would soon replace them piled on their backs.

For a little while, at least one such animal was kept at Davis’s home and library in Mississippi, where, in 2017, a woman from Florida sued the United States Sons of Confederate Veterans after being bitten during a visit. A brief phone call reveals that the camels are now gone, as the guys who own them came to pick them up. As to whether the camels were kept on the estate in tribute to Davis’s experiment, the man on the phone couldn’t say, as it was, like so many things, before his time.

We return to Glendale exhausted. The sun sets, and the heat starts to abate. Aengus prepares to drive back to Tucson in an old Volvo station wagon he has modified into some kind of metal-plated all-terrain vehicle. He has never done anything like this before—modified a car—but assures us the work has been vetted by freaks he trusts. The vehicle has no air conditioning and is, in his words, incredibly loud. He puts in his earplugs and waves goodbye, and we wave back.

In the evening, Andrew and I walk through Glendale and Andrew recalls a happy day from his childhood in which the canal was drained for maintenance and he and some friends discovered tens of fish flopping around in piles of gelatinous mud. (The fish were likely either carp or white amur. The former is legal to fish; the latter, which is not, is trucked in from Arkansas to help clear algae and weeds from the canals, and in recent years white amur have reportedly grown about fifty percent larger.) One kid picked up a handful of mud and pelted his friend with it. Another took his lead. They soon moved on to the fish. There they were, laughing at their own bad idea, with the silhouettes of fins and tails flapping against one of the hot-pink sunsets for which Arizona is so well-known. Andrew said he stank so badly by the time he got home that his mother made him throw away his clothes.

We stop in a dark bar called Jimbo’s and drink three pints of beer and at least as much water. Something funny catches my eye in one of the mirrors, and I spend a minute or so trying to figure out which one of the dozens of television screens is reflected. The bartender greets what appears to be a regular with the words “another day in paradise.” Between selected blasts of country music are long intervals of silence.

I wake to the sound of a toy horn and children screaming. It is 5:40 a.m. The house has cooled somewhat, but only somewhat. We head to a nearby mall, where people get in exercise walks before the stores open. Some of the walkers appear dressed for work; others are in athletic gear, headphones in and arms pumping. Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” plays quietly over the speakers, echoing off the marble floors and following us down dark corridors like a ghost.

Watching these people walking so early, the stores shuttered and the lights half-on, I feel my existence flicker. I think of a business park along the outside wall of I-10, overlooking a small cemetery whose dead are marked not by headstones but by oversize metal thumbtacks stuck into burnt grass. I think of the meticulously kept pet cemetery in the meticulously kept Sun City, twenty-five miles west, where a ring of plastic flowers frames a mausoleum for Miss Buffie and Miss Buffie II, and nearby lies the body of a rodent named after the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat.

I think of the surrounding neighborhood, where streets circle hypnotically around empty centers, where the plants look like toys, and rows of ranch houses look as if they were sets for a movie yet to be shot.

I think lastly of a cemetery in east Mesa, where an electronic billboard spells out in flashing letters the name of the employee of the month. Congratulations, Valerie. Death seems hard enough to handle even without all this life.

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October 2018

Checkpoint Nation

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Checkpoint Nation·

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Laura Sandoval threaded her way through idling taxis and men selling bottles of water toward the entrance of the Cordova International Bridge, which links Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Earlier that day, a bright Saturday in December 2012, Sandoval had crossed over to Juárez to console a friend whose wife had recently died. She had brought him a few items he had requested—eye drops, the chimichangas from Allsup’s he liked—and now that her care package had been delivered, she was in a hurry to get back to the Texas side, where she’d left her car. She had a three-hour drive to reach home, in the mountains in New Mexico, and she hated driving in the dark.

Sandoval took her place in the long line of people waiting to have their passports checked by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP). When it was her turn, she handed her American passport to a customs officer and smiled amicably, waiting for him to wave her through. But the officer said she had been randomly selected for additional screening. Sandoval was led to a secondary inspection area nearby, where two more officers patted her down. Another walked toward her with a drug-sniffing dog, which grew agitated as it came closer, barking and then circling her legs. Because the dog had “alerted,” the officer said, Sandoval would now have to undergo another inspection.

Checkpoint on I-35 near Encinal, Texas (detail) © Gabriella Demczuk
The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

What I do feel isolated in—if not entirely alone in—is my determination, as a novelist, essayist, and journalist, not to rage against the dying of literature’s light, although it’s surprising how little of this there is, but merely to examine the great technological discontinuity of our era, as we pivot from the wave to the particle, the fractal to the fungible, and the mechanical to the computable. I first began consciously responding, as a literary practitioner, to the manifold impacts of ­BDDM in the early 2000s—although, being the age I am, I have been feeling its effects throughout my working life—and I first started to write and speak publicly about it around a decade ago. Initially I had the impression I was being heard out, if reluctantly, but as the years have passed, my attempts to limn the shape of this epochal transformation have been met increasingly with outrage, and even abuse, in particular from my fellow writers.

As for my attempts to express the impact of the screen on the page, on the actual pages of literary novels, I now understand that these were altogether irrelevant to the requirement of the age that everything be easier, faster, and slicker in order to compel the attention of screen viewers. It strikes me that we’re now suffering collectively from a “tyranny of the virtual,” since we find ourselves unable to look away from the screens that mediate not just print but, increasingly, reality itself.

Photograph (detail) by Ellen Cantor from her Prior Pleasures series © The artist. Courtesy dnj Gallery, Santa Monica, California
Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

A veteran of cold, solitary starts in strange cities, I knew our best hope wasn’t the classifieds, and certainly not an agency, but the serendipity of the streets—handmade for rent signs, crowded bulletin boards in laundromats and corner grocery stores, passersby on the sidewalk; I had to exploit every opportunity that might present itself, no matter how oblique or improbable. In Eastlake, at the edge of Lake Union between downtown Seattle and the University District, I spied a shabby but vacant one-story house on the corner of a block that was obviously undergoing transition—overgrown lots and foundation remnants where other houses once stood—and that had at least one permanent feature most right-minded people would find forbidding: an elevated section of Interstate 5 just across the street, attended by the incessant roar of cars and trucks. The house needed a new roof, a couple of coats of paint, and, judging by what Ezra and I could detect during a furtive inspection, major repair work inside, including replacing damaged plaster-and-lath walls with sheetrock. All of this, from my standpoint, meant that I might have found a solution to my dilemma.

The next step was locating the owner, a roundabout process that eventually required a trip to the tax assessor’s office. I called the person listed on the rolls and made an appointment. Then came the moment of truth, or, more precisely, untruth, when dire circumstance begot strategic deception. I’d never renovated so much as a closet, but that didn’t stop me from declaring confidently that I possessed both the skills and the willingness to restore the entire place to a presentable—and, therefore, rentable—state in exchange for being able to live there for free, with the length of stay to be determined as work progressed. To my immense relief, the pretense was well received. Indeed, the owner also seemed relieved, if a bit surprised, that he’d have seemingly trustworthy tenants; homeless people who camped beneath the freeway, he explained, had repeatedly broken into the house and used it for all manner of depravity. Telling myself that inspired charlatanry is superior to mundane trespassing—especially this instance of charlatanry, which would yield some actual good—I accepted the keys from my new landlord.

Photograph (detail) © Larry Towell/Magnum Photos
Among Britain’s Anti-Semites·

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

When Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the British media, who are used to punching socialists, crawled over his record and found much to alarm the tiny Jewish community of 260,000. Corbyn called Hez­bollah “friends” and said Hamas, also his “friends,” were devoted “to long-term peace and social justice.” (He later said he regretted using that language.) He invited the Islamist leader Raed Salah, who has accused Jews of killing Christian children to drink their blood, to Parliament, and opposed his extradition. Corbyn is also a patron of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and a former chair of Stop the War, at whose rallies they chant, “From the river to the sea / Palestine will be free.” (There is no rhyme for what will happen to the Jewish population in this paradise.) He was an early supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and its global campaign to delegitimize Israel and, through the right of return for Palestinians, end its existence as a Jewish state. (His office now maintains that he does not support BDS. The official Labour Party position is for a two-state solution.) In the most recent general election, only 13 percent of British Jews intended to vote Labour.

Corbyn freed something. The scandals bloomed, swiftly. In 2016 Naz Shah, Labour MP for Bradford West, was suspended from the party for sharing a Facebook post that suggested Israel be relocated to the United States. She apologized publicly, was reinstated, and is now a shadow women and equalities minister. Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London and a political supporter of Corbyn, appeared on the radio to defend Shah and said, “When Hitler won his election in 1932, his policy then was that Jews should be moved to Israel. He was supporting Zionism before he went mad and ended up killing six million Jews.” For this comment, Livingstone was suspended from the party.

A protest against anti-Semitism in the Labour Party in Parliament Square, London, March 26, 2018 (detail) © Yui Mok/PA Images/Getty Images

Chances an American who voted for Ross Perot in 1992 can no longer recall having done so:

1 in 2

People tend to believe that God believes what they believe.

Nikki Haley resigns; Jamal Khashoggi murdered; Kanye visits the White House

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Happiness Is a Worn Gun


Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

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