Acid West executes the delicate balancing act between staying rooted in a single specific space and time while making statements that are more general and universal.
Acid West executes the delicate balancing act between staying rooted in a single specific space and time while making statements that are more general and universal. Each of the book’s 13 essays are confined to the geographical space of southern New Mexico (technically, the 13th is more situated just across the Mexican border, but that’s close enough) and are set within the past decade. But author Joshua Wheeler has written a book that captures something vital about the US, in particular, and about living in the twenty-first century more broadly.
Acid West is uneven. Some of its essays, such as “Children of the Gadget,” are brilliant, perspicacious and speak to the core of what it means to be a person living in the contemporary United States, while others, like “Things Most Surely Believed,” are aspiring—you can see the work on the page as well as the statement that Wheeler wishes to make—to such lofty heights but are only ever vapid and vacuous. The highs in the book, which are mostly concentrated in the first half of the collection, are so grand and successful that a reader will tolerate those essays that cannot quite make the standard.
Southern New Mexico is both beyond the pale of “normal” US experience and, simultaneously, one of the fullest and most complete expressions of US history and culture. It is, at the same time, a cultural epicenter and hinterland. Acid West makes this argument in a compelling and convincing fashion as it highlights UFO conspiracy-mongers, nuclear testing and ethnic cleansing as well as a host of more banal topics. The US has its share of myths and legends, most of which have passed from current cultural consciousness, but those faded myths have taken up permanent residence in southern New Mexico. Wheeler brings them to the fore and takes the reader on a tour through them. New Mexico is weird, but its weirdness is directly related to the US mainstream.
For example, New Mexico is ground zero for the nuclear bomb. It is where the Manhattan Project was centered and hosted the first atomic detonation, in Wheeler’s hometown of Alamogordo. The US military spent most of the Cold War blowing up random spots in the southern New Mexican desert, with both nuclear and conventional munitions. It was, then, in many ways the very foundation of the Cold War, the arms race, and the cutting edge in science for more than four decades. And yet, no one gives New Mexico anything close to this kind of prominence in recent US history; it is removed from the collective cultural imaginary of the United States.
In many ways, US-American identity is predicated on events or movements that were either based in New Mexico or in which New Mexico played a major role—think of the frontier thesis, the importance of the railroad, interactions with Native Americans or the literal boundary-setting of placing the national border. Or think of the Bomb: the US is the most prolifically nuclear-bombed country in the world because of the hundreds of tests done in the western deserts. New Mexico was the genesis of that legacy; its weirdness is our collective weirdness, its irradiated green sandy soil that was once productive farmland our own collective greed- and power-obsessed social rot.
Wheeler weaves this cogent and worthwhile argument through his 13 essays with literary aplomb. His narrative voice is funny and approachable throughout, which keeps the book lively and light even while demonstrating Wheeler’s intelligence. Wheeler loves neologism and coins several throughout the collection. His prose is superb; unlike most essay collections, where the flow lags at time because the writer is trying too hard to be artful, Acid West stays engaging and Wheeler’s confidence in his wordsmithing never wanes. Wheeler is artful with such nonchalance that he can focus his writing on crafting imagery and constructing metaphors like those in the previous paragraph.
Acid West is entertaining, diverse in subject and approach and just plain fun to read, even though the essays are uneven in quality. It could also credibly populate a university-level American Studies syllabus, but the erudition it so obviously exudes is nicely balanced by Wheeler’s prose so that the book is never unapproachable or intimidating, either.