Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi No Conflict, No Fiction

By Steven Robert Allen

OCTOBER 25, 1999: 

Land of Enchantment, Land of Conflict: New Mexico in English-Language Fiction by David L. Caffey (Texas A&M University Press), hardcover, $29.95

It goes without saying that New Mexico is enchanting. The mesas, the mountains, the wildlife, the cultural diversity, la luz -- and all the rest of the enchanting stuff you see plastered on Southwest calendars at Walgreens, or bottled and sold in the chintzy tourist boutiques of Old Town, Santa Fe and Taos -- have attracted creative types to this region for a long time. But that doesn't explain why so much fiction has come out of a state where hardly anyone lives. The volume of writing is simply astonishing. It can't just be because this place is enchanting. After all, a lot of places are enchanting.

Yet if it's not enchantment, what is it? The thesis of David L. Caffey's excellent new survey of New Mexico's literary past and present is that the reason why there's a writer wiggling under almost every stone in New Mexico is because this is a turbulent territory. Contrary to what your local chamber of commerce brochure might tell you, New Mexico is a place where cultures, traditions and philosophies clash. People here have fought, and continue to fight, to the death over scarce water, land use, tradition and change.

Our tourism industry thrives off a myth that New Mexico represents a trinity of distinct cultures -- Native American, Hispanic and Anglo -- all melding together in a multicultural, utopian paradise, each culture enriching the other in some kind of synergistic lovefest of diversity. Of course, most New Mexicans realize that this is just so much crap. You can pick up this paper any week of the month and see that this land of enchantment, at least from a social, political and environmental perspective, is better characterized as a land of intense conflict. It's been this way for hundreds of years. By all indications, it will remain this way for several hundred more.

The only one who truly benefits from this tense state of affairs is the fiction writer, a breed that by both nature and occupation thrives on conflict. As Caffey points out, conflict is the lifeblood and essence of all literature. Without it, fiction cannot exist.

Caffey traces the major themes running through English-language New Mexican fiction from 1826 to the present. He examines the fictional portrayals of cowboys and archbishops, farmers and nuclear physicists. He probes the connections between reality and myth, looking at the way popular perspectives of historical personalities have been bent, elaborated or corrupted beyond repair.

Caffey doesn't confine himself to meritorious work. He plows through heaps of dime novel westerns, a popular form of entertainment that flourished from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the century and that was read primarily by Easterners and Europeans eager for an "authentic" taste of the Wild West. As literature, dime novels had very few redeeming qualities. But in showing how fiction has altered perceptions of what New Mexico is, Caffey grants these pulp baubles some measure of redemption. These fictions may not have any bond to real cowboys, the real New Mexico, or for that matter, the real anything, but trashy novels nevertheless altered our perceptions of this land and people, and because of this, Caffey finds that they have some value.

Caffey digs deep, but for a text from an academic press with an academic theme, this book is extremely readable. Always thoughtful, often funny and sarcastic, Caffey shows us in concrete terms how the literary history of New Mexico is intricately connected to the literal history of New Mexico. In doing so, he has created a powerful statement in favor of literary culture in general. From the U.S. occupation to the intrigues of Los Alamos to the extraterrestrials of Roswell to the battle of individual cultures to preserve their traditions and ways of life, fiction writers have motivated us to perceive and experience this land of enchantment and conflict in new and extraordinary ways. Like it or not, thinking about New Mexico has become almost unthinkable without the occasional glance through the refracted lens of fiction.

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