The Secret Lives of Used Books (The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles)

The Sheltering Sky, by Paul Bowles (New York: New Directions, 1949). Photograph by Jon Zobenica.

This inscription in my copy of Paul Bowles’s 1949 The Sheltering Sky is priceless: “Dec. 1998 I don’t know what kept me reading — strange, strange book.”

It is a strange book. An American couple navigating a rough patch in their marriage decide to change the backdrop. They head into the North African desert and from there straight into a waking nightmare. I read the book in the nineties as well, in the early years of my own marriage, years when my wife and I were still figuring out (not altogether successfully) how to become more a couple and less two individuals in a relationship, more a whole than the sum of two spooked, moody parts.

During that time we, too, changed the backdrop — with a trip to Joshua Tree, a handsomely blasted environment with horizons like the earth’s sharp edge (to borrow a phrase from Bowles). As she and I wandered the terrain taking photographs, I indulged in a bit of capital-R Romanticism, picturing us like an alienated couple out of Bowles, our situation both beautified and dwarfed by the majestic, indifferent landscape through which we moved.

Twenty years later we returned to Joshua Tree, with our young son in tow, free of any low-grade connubial gloom. Our only complaint was of the jolly crowds that had descended on this once mostly unpeopled corner of the desert, crowds communing with themselves more than they were the setting, to which they seemed borderline indifferent. Still, there were notifications of a hiker who had disappeared in the park months earlier and who had not been seen since. So a measure of Bowlesian dread remained — had never gone away, in fact.

Joshua Tree has played host to numerous accidental deaths, suicides, murders, murder-suicides, mercy killings, and even the botched funeral pyre of Gram Parsons, whose young, overdosed, mortal remains were put to the match there by some drugstore-cowboy friends of his, after they’d absconded with his coffin from a hangar at Los Angeles International Airport and raced into the desert in a vintage hearse, to perform their ritual.

Speaking of the greater Mojave Desert, of which Joshua Tree is a part, a former San Bernardino County sheriff once said that if they put a cross in the sand everywhere a body was found, the place would look like Forest Lawn Cemetery. And he was speaking only of bodies that had been dumped there.

Strange, strange book, life. Hard to put down.

A former senior editor at The Atlantic, now living in California. jonzobenica.wordpress.com

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Jon Zobenica

Jon Zobenica

A former senior editor at The Atlantic, now living in California. jonzobenica.wordpress.com

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