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Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California Historyby Deanne Stillman
Synopses & Reviews
North of Los Angeles — the studios, the beaches, Rodeo Drive — lies a sparsely populated region that comprises fully one half of Los Angeles County. Sprawling across 2200 miles, this shadow side of Los Angeles is in the high Mojave Desert. Known as the Antelope Valley, it's a terrain of savage dignity, a vast amphitheater of startling wonders that put on a show as the megalopolis burrows northward into the region's last frontier. Ranchers, cowboys, dreamers, dropouts, bikers, hikers, and felons have settled here - those who have chosen solitude over the trappings of contemporary life or simply have nowhere else to go. But in recent years their lives have been encroached upon by the creeping spread of subdivisions, funded by the once easy money of subprime America. McMansions — many empty now — gradually replaced Joshua trees; the desert — America's escape hatch — began to vanish as it became home to a latter-day exodus of pilgrims.
It is against the backdrop of these two competing visions of land and space that Donald Kueck — a desert hermit who loved animals and hated civilization — took his last stand, gunning down beloved deputy sheriff Stephen Sorensen when he approached his trailer at high noon on a scorching summer day. As the sound of rifle fire echoed across the Mojave, Kueck took off into the desert he knew so well, kicking off the biggest manhunt in modern California history until he was finally killed in a Wagnerian firestorm under a full moon as nuns at a nearby convent watched and prayed.
This manhunt was the subject of a widely praised article by Deanne Stillman, first published in Rolling Stone, a finalist for a PEN Center USA journalism award, and included in the anthology Best American Crime Writing 2006. In Desert Reckoning she continues her desert beat and uses Kuecks story as a point of departure to further explore our relationship to place and the wars that are playing out on our homeland. In addition, Stillman also delves into the hidden history of Los Angeles County, and traces the paths of two men on a collision course that could only end in the modern Wild West. Why did a brilliant, self-taught rocket scientist who just wanted to be left alone go off the rails when a cop showed up? What role did the California prison system play in this drama? What happens to people when the American dream is stripped away? And what is it like for the men who are sworn to protect and serve?
"Stillman (Twentynine Palms) uses a face-off in 2003 between a brilliant, paranoid, drug-abusing hermit and a former surfer — turned — law enforcement officer, and the subsequent seven-day manhunt, to frame a much larger story of the Mojave's Antelope Valley. Based on her Rolling Stone article 'The Great Mojave Manhunt,' Stillman explores, with exquisite detail, the broken families and failed strivings of her two protagonists: hermit Donald Kueck and the murdered sheriff, Steve Sorenson. In her gentle hands, Kueck and Sorenson emerge as tragic figures who traveled radically different paths, but found their lives and deaths in the desert. The details of the manhunt for Kueck are interspersed with Stillman's imaginings about his seven days on the run, with the desert sometimes becoming the main character. Was Kueck concealed in the hidden tunnels of the Mojave? How did he get water? Stillman skillfully excavates the vividly drawn landscape to reveal the desert's mystical spirit and history of human striving. Soon, Stillman speculates, the building of the High Desert Corridor, a highway scheduled for completion in 2020, will 'drive the remaining castaways deeper into the desert... desperadoes displaced one more time.' Through the lens of a gripping true crime story, this beautifully written, humane book preserves the history of a remarkable and very American place and its people. Agent: TK." Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Deanne Stillman does for the 'lonely heart' of the desert behind Los Angeles what Raymond Chandler did for the shabby glamour of the city's garden suburbs. You can hear dreams being broken in every sentence of Desert Reckoning. In Stillman's propulsive, often hallucinatory account, a brutal crime and its strange aftermath expose the terrors and beauties that still inhabit the empty places that lie at the end the city's freeways." D. J. Waldie, author of Notes from Los Angeles: Where We Are Now
"Desert Reckoning is a major achievement. Fusing truth with the insight of a talented novelist's imagination, Deanne Stillman has created a masterpiece of empathy and understanding for those so often least afforded it. Nothing here is simply rendered. Stillman's vision of society's outcasts, the lost souls who take their final stand in the badlands of California's deserts, demonstrates a remarkable sense of humanity and compassion. I haven't read something this good, and so beautifully written, in a long, long time." James Brown, author of The Los Angeles Diaries and This River
"Deanne Stillman is the Raymond Chandler of the New West, a hell of a writer who leaves no cacti unturned, no long-dried gulch unexamined, and no abandoned settlement left be in her latest gritty, implausible-yet-too-real story. The tale told in Desert Reckoning will quickly join the same vein of Western anti-hero epics such as Willie Boy and Tiburcio Vasquez." Gustavo Arellano, author of Orange County and the syndicated column, Ask a Mexican!
"Deanne Stillman's Desert Reckoning is a modern-day corrido, a protest ballad of lost lives and broken dreams set in the vast Mojave, one of California's most delicate and volatile regions, a too-often-forgotten landscape beyond the surf, the stars, and the palm trees. The rhythms, beats, and chords of Stillman's writing — brutal, haunting, and heartbreaking — bear witness to the lives of lonely hermits and desperate tweakers, outlaw bikers and tenacious cops, in prose that shimmers and aches so beautifully that it splits your soul and shakes loose your skin, leaving you speechless and yearning for more and more. With this book, Deanne Stillman proves once again why she is one of the most powerful chroniclers of the modern American West." Alex Espinoza, author of Still Water Saints
"Deanne Stillman's meticulously researched book takes us behind the scenes of real police work and into the hearts and minds of two men. In her spellbinding account of the murder and the massive manhunt, she leaves no doubt as to the consequences of how we raise our children, particularly our sons." Norm Stamper, Seattle Chief of Police (retired) and author of Breaking Rank
"Deanne Stillman's work is gritty and unflinching, yet filled with humanity." Jo-Ann Mapson, author of Finding Casey and Solomon's Oak
"A must-read for the summer." Rolling Stone
Part Jon Krakauer and part Cormac McCarthy, a critically acclaimed writer uses the story of the biggest manhunt in Californian history to tell a universal tale of an outlaw at war with contemporary America.
About the Author
Deanne Stillman is a widely published, critically acclaimed writer. Her books include the award-winning Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West, a Los Angeles Times "Best Book 2008," and Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave, a cult classic which Hunter Thompson called "A strange and brilliant story by an important American writer," now out in a new edition with a foreword by Charles Bowden. She is a member of the core faculty at the UC Riverside-Palm Desert low-residency creative writing program. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.
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