In this collection, interstate highways are stoned with sad songs, while accelerating on The Stones. They speed towards motel rooms and roadside bars, sweaty in premonitions of tomorrows through the Mojave Desert, or swanky Palm Springs hanging out on tan lines and glamour that might turn off George McCormick’s characters. His are not L.A. types, hoping for alternatives to traffic jams, smog, or specters of road rage. But they are not rural either; they are somewhere in between, suspended in that vast space girdled by truck stops, railroads, dry landscapes, and coffee refills on Sunset Boulevard, before accelerating the 101 or I-5 towards midnight and beyond. They take anything outside the nine-to-five hustle, anything stable, to support a family, a budding romance, or dreams that might wake, glimmering, in their baby daughter’s eyes.
The thrill of having steady employment is palpable in the first story, “The Mexican.” For the first time, Jess gets paid “regularly, every two weeks, in checks,” as part of a crew that re-ices refrigerator boxcars that transport oranges out of California. Their routines involve one-hundred-pound ice blocks beneath inky skies. One night, Jess discovers a man in one of the cars. Unsure about the stranger’s background, Jess says, “the man—he was Mexican, I was sure—got up from his crouch and walked past me to the bulwark. He crawled over it and disappeared into the oranges like a snake in a river.”
In the context of racial difference, this encounter is an assault to the identities of the parties involved, and has a paralyzing effect. The incident becomes a secret, too private to be shared with co-workers and friends, like an affair. This silence protects Jess from forms of interventions that could disrupt his life and bi-weekly paycheck. Years later, this experience lives on in stories for his children. This time though, he masks the encounter with other details, with “images of a stampede, of animals running”: his best compromise not to talk about that encounter. Talking about it would validate whatever happened inside him then, or the level of assault it insinuated and inspired, that “he choked, and in trying to scream, moaned instead,” before “coughing a mouthful of bile that ran down [his] lips and onto [his] chin.” The social relation implied in the encounter is fragile in its savagery, as though it exists not only outside the law, but outside the history of segregation itself, sneaky as “a snake in a river.” Thusly, “Mexican,” here, signifies something remote, not yet inculcated and calculated in California’s historical narrative; nevertheless the term is highly accessible, a convenient synonym for otherness. However, the incident in the boxcar appears isolated, and too singular an event to distort Jess’s mythical image of the West, which excludes ice, oranges, and a Mexican. The story somehow begs for another dimension, or other detailed experiences besides the boxcar incident that can generate “a stampede of lies,” in Jess’s imagination, as a father raising boys.
On the other hand, the rest of the collection is spared from this kind of speculation; but more so, they explore the fragile contours of relationships, its betrayals, corrugations, hopes, and weeping compromises. These are told in spare, accessible prose in “DC,” “You Are Going to Be a Good Man,” and “Birdy.” But the saddest relationship story among these—at least for me—is “Salton Sea,” which explores a longing for fatherhood: a solitary hope, since the narrator’s wife, Ramona, is committed to the vision both had forged before they got married, that they “would travel, or be artists, or inhabit whatever lives were out there that didn’t include the toils of rearing children.” It is a romantic vision, perhaps too idealistic for adult life and its desires. A trip back to the Salton Sea where the couple had honeymooned after tying the knot bookmarks Ramona’s new vision of their marriage, something cathartic for her and hopefully satisfying for her husband: “You can fuck me any way you want, just as long as you don’t talk anymore about wanting babies. Ever.” She knows how to keep a promise. But her husband’s longing for fatherhood is like what happened to the Colorado River when it was “diverted into a system of irrigations ducts and canals” that failed; the water found its way to the Salton Sink in California and formed an accidental sea in 1905, which drew a community of resorts that didn’t quite rival those in nearby Palm Springs. In the end, Ramona moves to Texas, while her ex still lives in Southern California. His longing to be a father has been diverted to a new girl named Amy; they are childless, but have a dog named Marlowe.
Chances are, if you are a Ramona type, a few swigs of this collection might feel like McCormick has gotten too deep under your skin, and you might feel like going back to California to take away your ex from Amy, because your friends now have babies, too, and your mother is begging you to give her a grandchild. But whatever type you are, whether you like The Stones or work on gallstones for a living, don't forget this collection at a rest stop, after reading it the second or third time beside a six-pack that's hardly unpacked. You might want to pass it on to a stranger at Barstow trying to avoid bad weather, as you're both whiling time away, baring your lives like you've met each other before, years ago, at a state university. Despite those years, your new friend across the table still feels short of success, sometimes so short that, as McCormick might say in one of his stories, "she has to stand on her college degrees to work the register." That's right. This collection has that kind of edge, too, wherein humor crawls with quiet confidence beneath the sadness "like a snake in a river."