The protagonist of Chris McCormick’s debut novel-in-stories, Desert Boys (Picador, May 2016), considers his existence to be “a life leaving a place, only to return to it again and again.” This is the space Desert Boys occupies: the tension between leaving and returning, of being both entirely of a place and completely separate from it. We all know the adage, in some form: you can take the boy out of the desert, but you can’t take desert out of the boy.
Consider the boy, though. Daley Kushner, nicknamed Kush, swearing he was born in the wrong time and place, impossibly pining after his friend Robert Karinger. Consider the desert: The Antelope Valley, a slice of California that feels almost mythical, that seems itself to be from the wrong time. Kush leaves the desert he’s always wanted to, the desert that’s managed to both hinder and hone him, and creates something of an ethnography of belonging.
Desert Boys is cheeky but tender, both sprawling and personal. McCormick, a trickster when it comes to form, assembles his stories as a sort of found document–a list of reasons, a series of instructions, a set of notes to be transformed into an article, some memories, some local lore–an assemblage of Kush’s notes on the Antelope Valley. As Kush attempts to parse his complicated relationship to his home, he is forced to face as well his sexuality, his politics, his masculinity. Set against the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan and the urbanization of the Antelope Valley, Desert Boys is an examination of flux, a shared coming-of-age tale for both the desert and the boy.
I had the opportunity to sit down with McCormick and discuss word play, writing about place, and narrators who just can’t stop talking about themselves.
So, the first person who blurbed you was Karen Russell. And I remember seeing it–she called you devious! And you are, I’ve learned, but in a playful, mischief-making way with words: you pull off using the adverb “monotesticularly,” you say that the phrase “to be” in the past is always an accusation. Is this where you draw your inspiration from: the things you can do with words? Is the word play the first thing to come to you?
Karen liked the beginning of one of the stories, where a publicly-shamed high school replaces its confederate mascot with a live tortoise, and she said that joke reminded her of Barry Hannah, who’s more devious than I am. But yes, the playing with language is the first thing to come, usually. Sometimes I write really tight and then expand as I revise, but even in the first drafts I’m having fun. I think probably the reason I’m a writer is because I’ve always been aware of presentation, and writing is the one place where I get to revise and play with how I present something before anyone sees it, which allows for a kind of fearlessness and deviousness I tend to lack in real life.
The form itself is super playful. You have a novel-in-stories centered almost entirely on a single narrator, which I feel is a form more writers are embracing. I’m thinking of Mona Awad’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl and Matt Sumell’s Making Nice as recent examples, where the stories serve as different approaches at some idea or some issue. Did you try to write Desert Boys as a novel first or did it bloom from a single story?
It grew from a story, the very first in the collection: Mother, Godfather, Baby, Priest. I’d written some other stories about the Antelope Valley that I then had to retroactively figure out the book’s relationship to. The first one I actually wrote was the one called Shelter, about Kush (real name, Daley) and his friend Karinger on the golf course. But Mother, Godfather, Baby, Priest let me know Kush was going to be the voice of this book and that this was going to be a collection of stories from his point of view.
But already within that first story, which shifts back and forth between first and third person, I felt myself wanting to push the limits of the form. It became apparent that this narrator, Kush, needed different, less traditional ways to figure out the questions he was trying to ask about his experience.
For whatever reason—Dubliners, maybe?—I knew early on that I wanted to write a story collection about the Antelope Valley. But for a long time, I struggled with it because I always just wanted to explain the place. Like, look at this weird place that I come from! Let me tell you all about it! So there was no energy, it was like listening to someone describe a dream they had, which means so much more to the person telling it than it ever could to anyone else. And then I read this quote from Grace Paley, who used to tell her students, “Don’t write what you know, write what you don’t know about what you know.”
Suddenly, instead of trying to explain this place I was trying to understand it. I was asking questions instead of explaining things. Kush also has that kind of breakthrough moment. As he attempts to explain this place, his past, he runs into a million more questions than answers. And those questions became new stories for the book.
Daley is a great character to explore ambivalence through. In anthropological terms, he’d be called a key informant: someone who is very much of a place or culture and can provide a fairly complete description of it. He can even get a little anthropological himself when he talks about his home. But then there are aspects of his personhood that make him very much not “of” this culture, that separate him. How did you conceive of him as the figure through which the Antelope Valley would be conveyed?
I think most fiction is fundamentally about people who, in one way or another, are both insiders and outsiders at the same time. Kush—who’s half-Armenian and half-white—is destined for it. He’s got the privilege of access to this place, but feels othered by his bicultural life. I wanted a narrator who felt like a visitor in his own home. He can’t put his finger on why. He feels like he’s living in the wrong place, and then he thinks he was born at the wrong time in history: he listens to music from the 60s and 70s, he wishes he were alive during a more politically-engaged era, he believes he could’ve been a man of significance in a different set of circumstances.
On top of all that, he lives in a place that’s rapidly changing at the same time he is. As the Antelope Valley develops from a rural community to suburban sprawl, he’s wrestling with adolescence and early manhood. I was interested in what happens when these kinds of transformations overlap, when you’re trying to figure out who you are in a place that’s still trying to figure out its identity. I think that makes for a more uncertain, more curious, and therefore more interesting narrator.
I’ve noticed you love to play with this idea of liminality and tension. Daley is and is not so many pieces of his identity. The Antelope Valley itself is also both inside and outside of assumptions about California and America. And another place you explore this is through the idea of masculinity. Did you want masculinity to play the major role it ends up playing as you wrote Desert Boys or was it simply inevitable?
The performance of masculinity—the idea that there are right ways to be a man—was probably the central thrust of my anxiety growing up, and it was for Kush, too. He grows up feeling like a fraud performing a particular version of masculinity in a place that expects not only the performance, but the denial that’s a performance as well.
But that’s not to say I wanted to make a point. I just wanted to figure out why it had mattered to me so much—and why, in new and surprising ways, it still does. There’s that moment when Kush brings his boyfriend, Lloyd, home from San Francisco to meet his father, and he suddenly notices that Lloyd has a lisp. There’s a very narrow definition in most places about what it means to be a man, and once you reject that narrow version, you’re forced to pay attention in new, sometimes uncomfortable ways to something more dynamic and complicated. Sometimes that level of attention ends up showing you things about yourself that you’d rather not admit. So yeah, one reason I wrote this book is because I chose to pay that kind of uncomfortable attention, which raised my anxiety growing up, but also raised all these questions that drive my writing.
Speaking of that encounter with Lloyd and Daley’s father: this happens in How To Revise a Play, a story in the second person. The reader is simultaneously taken outside of Daley’s thoughts and placed in his shoes through the imperative “you,” to stunning effect. What about this story necessitated this kind of re-routed access to the protagonist?
Kush is a writer, so in trying to understand his hometown—and his place in it—he also has to learn how best to do that. If he can figure out the best way to tell the story of his past, he thinks, maybe he can figure out what kind of life he’ll end up living in the future. I didn’t want the alternating forms—stories within stories, lists, transcripts, etc—to feel like exercises or brainy craft decisions. They needed to emerge from the character, whose deliberate arrangement of his experiences is a crucial part of what makes him, him.
How to Revise a Play is a good example. I tried it in the first person, but it felt flat. At an emotionally difficult point of the story, Kush tries to pull himself together by giving himself a pep talk, telling himself to stop relying on the men in his life, to start instructing himself. And I realized this was the story for him to do that, literally. I rewrote the story in the second person, and suddenly Kush was guiding himself through the meeting of his boyfriend and his father, a meeting he’s not expecting to go well. It’s Kush saying to himself, “here’s how you’re going to get through this,” which works for this particular moment in the book. In other stories, the context makes more sense for Kush to be almost a spectator.
But he’s a strange kind of spectator. In The Costs and Benefits of Desert Agriculture, you say that anytime we remember anyone that we love, what we’re really remembering is ourselves. Daley is told over and over, by several people in his life and in a variety of scenarios, “this is not about you.” But on the flip-side, he’ll often he’ll tell a story that isn’t his at all: it’ll be the farmer’s story, the two girls in the desert’s story. How did you negotiate having a self-absorbed protagonist capable of a rather wide narratorial reach?
A lot of the instances of people pushing back against Kush are my own anxieties coming through: Come on, man, stop talking about yourself! This is not about you! Thankfully, some of the other characters had the courage to tell him to his face.
Some of my favorite first person narrators, like Nick in The Great Gatsby, serve as a lens to other stories, and I wanted Kush to be that kind of lens in some stories that add to his mythology of the place, but don’t necessarily affect him directly. But of course, our mythologies of places do affect us, change our understanding of the world, and so I think that line from The Costs and Benefits of Desert Agriculture is accurate and uncomfortable. I think what we try to do in polite conversation—as in other people’s stories—is to be as absent as possible while we’re present. It’s not about me. But when you’re trying, as Kush is, to figure out where you can belong, it’s impossible to avoid using other people’s experiences as a means of self-reflection.
It’s a risky kind of first-person narrator. But it’s also the best for trying to write about place, I think. Places, like people, aren’t static. Our ideas of a place are dependent on the experiences we’ve had there, the gossip we’ve heard about them, the myths we make of them in our imaginations. If you’re someone, like Kush, who is trying to make meaning of a place as a means to make meaning of your life, you’ve got to make use of it all.