Son of the desert

Feb 21, 2001 at 12:00 am

Mark Jude Poirier has found a gold mine in the desert. His native Tucson, Ariz., served as the barren backdrop for his acclaimed 1999 short-story collection, Naked Pueblo. In his impressive debut novel, Goats, Poirier keeps one foot planted firmly in the sand while pushing the geographic and creative boundaries of his craft. The result is a silly and satisfying chronicle of the changing relationship between 14-year-old Ellis Whitman and his unlikely surrogate father, Goat Man, a goateed pothead who lives in Ellis' pool house.

Goat Man isn't an ideal role model for Ellis, but he's the only adult available. Ellis' father, commonly referred to as "Fucker Frank" since he left the family to start a new life on the East Coast, is thousands of miles away. Ellis' mother is around, but she's pursuing New Age mysticism and virile young boyfriends while her absentee stepfather and Frank's alimony checks pay the bills.

Ellis is 11 when he starts getting high with Goat Man, and he soon embraces the reggae music, ganja smoking, and goat herding that make up Goat Man's laid-back desert lifestyle. Their relationship is redefined when a 14-year-old Ellis returns from an East Coast prep school for a spring-break trek through the desert.

Goats is nowhere near as maudlin or melodramatic as this description may sound. Poirier serves up an offbeat coming-of-age story while avoiding most of the clichés common to the form. Part of its success lies in the natural development of the dark humor and themes that inhabit the author's short stories.

A sense of failure drifts through Poirier's fiction like a hot, dry wind. The desert landscape damages its inhabitants, forges their resilience, and occasionally bears the scars of their missed opportunities. The environment's influence appears in Naked Pueblo characters such as the Monkey Lady, the widowed alcoholic mother of the first and last stories in the collection. In "Son of the Monkey Lady," the narrator describes her sitting at her kitchen table:

[S]he looked down and started smoothing her fake-tan pantyhose, pointing one toe like a ballerina and pulling her skirt up a little, like she was sexy. She wasn't, and that was back when she had both of her legs. She was Planet of the Apes Monkey Lady with creases that ran from her lips up toward her nose and down to her chin, like her mouth had once been stitched closed with wire.

Such grotesquery notwithstanding, Poirier doesn't resort to jokes at the expense of his characters. Even after the Monkey Lady loses her leg during a freak carnival accident in the final tale in the collection, "Tilt-a-Whirl," Poirier treats her as a character instead of a caricature:

In the blazing parking lot a sickening series of thoughts raced through [her] mind. This would be the first time she entered her house with one foot. The first time she opened her refrigerator with one foot. The first time she cracked a beer with one foot. She remembered Freedah's comment about handicapable, looked down at her Smurf boot, and choked out a cry.

In other parts of Naked Pueblo, the physical scars appear on the environment itself. The story "Cul-de-sacs" features an architect who moved from Manhattan to Tucson and married the first girl he met. At work, the cement benches he designs break easily, but he won't react, instead spending his days playing Tetris and slowly designing a concrete trash can. His niece moves into his home for the summer and spends her evenings out at bars with his wife. The architect's troubles are reflected in the landscape surrounding the "model home" he purchased in a bankrupt housing development. Anonymous streets and cul-de-sacs designed to lead families to their homes twist off into the desert with no purpose or potential: "The development was going to be called Blue Canyons. There were no blue canyons out there. No canyons of any color."

It's hard to prosper in a desert, so most of Poirier's characters settle for surviving. They become equal parts resilience and resignation, a status quo that even includes the animals of the landscape. Poirier makes this apparent early on in Goats when he describes the "slabs of dry, gray wood and snatched real estate signs" that make up the pen for Goat Man's herd. The goats have plenty of opportunities to escape but, given the dry terrain, little incentive to do so: "A few times, after a squabble or a monsoon, one or two of the goats did stray. Ellis was the one who fetched them. Goat Man couldn't be bothered; he knew they'd be home sooner or later."

Ellis' initiative--the fact that he has any will to action at all--distinguishes him from Goat Man and foreshadows the gradual rift in their relationship. The difference between them becomes clearer when Poirier reveals that Goat Man actively pursued the complacency of his desert life. Like the architect in "Cul-de-sacs" who voluntarily moved to the desert and bought a cheap house in a bankrupt development, Goat Man is a transplant. In high school, he left his Irish-Italian home in Illinois to spend a summer in Texas with his half-Mexican cousins. When he returned to his school, he slicked back his hair and adopted a fake Mexican accent: "He told people to call him Javier, and when they weren't calling him Wetback or Webster, his friends did. Javier always had the weed, and it was stupid to offend the man with the weed."

Goat Man's decision to come to the desert, raise goats, and stay stoned shows that some of Poirier's characters are drawn to the harsh environment that keeps them stagnant. Ellis, however, is not destined to become a permanent inhabitant of the naked pueblo. Poirier briefly explores this idea of selective identity when Goat Man and Ellis' mother stop in a record store:

The owner, a light black man with thick dreadlocks . . . turned down the music and walked over. "Goat Mon, how are you? Great to see you." Goat Man knew for a fact that Reggie was from Phoenix and that his Jamaican accent was bogus. He didn't mind that Reggie had dreadlocks and considered himself a Rastafarian, but the phony accent was stupid, annoying.

Reggie only appears once more in the novel, when he closes the store for good in an effort to get out of town, and he explains to Goat Man "in his legitimate Phoenix nonaccent" that he can't get him the marijuana he promised. This brief encounter provides comic relief in the novel but it also hints at some uncharted territory in Poirier's desert landscape.

Naked Pueblo and Goats skillfully depict a refreshingly original cast of characters drifting through sun-beaten oblivion. In the future, however, it might be interesting to take a step beyond a white, lower-middle-class perspective and examine why a white man pretending to be Mexican would be annoyed by a black man with a fake Jamaican accent. The answer is probably far more grotesque than a barrel full of Monkey Ladies.

Frank Diller writes for the City Paper, where this review first appeared.