Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Hitching to Reality -- Story #1

STORY: "Death in the Desert" by James Agee


BASICALLY: First published in 1930, this is the story of a hitchhiker with a painful boil in his ear, what happens when a car he is in passes a black man abandoned in the desert, and how the hitchhiker tries to justify not saying anything about it.

James Agee is one of my favorite authors ever. I own a shelf-and-a-half of books by and about him, I’ve read all of his major works—Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, A Death in the Family, The Morning Watch—and many of his minor ones, but until today I had never read either of the two short stories contained in The Collected Short Prose. Agee was an absolute genius of a writer, with an almost Dostevskyan ability to get inside the heads of his characters; an ability to render bit-part characters as three-dimensional, living, breathing, real people with real pasts (an ability that could have made Betty Smith proud); and an ability to capture the tone and the weirdness of this world’s silence and light and human awkwardness that is just about unparalleled.

Still, he wasn’t the most imaginative writer—the guy didn’t do fanciful plots or really anything at all that wasn’t completely grounded in his own life’s experiences—and the story I just read, “Death in the Desert,” is definitely another example of this, based as it is in a seven-week hitchhiking trip he took not long before writing it. (According to Genevieve Moreau’s The Restless Journey of James Agee.)

Written when Agee was only twenty years old—a fact that does not exactly make me feel anything at all approaching “good”—“Death in the Desert” was first published in 1930 in The Harvard Advocate, his then-college’s literary magazine.

The story surprised me, because not only is it by one of my very favorite authors, it happens to be set in and around St. Johns, Arizona, on a highway I’ve hitchhiked myself many times, back when I was living alone in a trailer in the desert about forty miles from there, working on a screenplay. I could visualize the story with added ease because of that—that barren almost-South-Dakota-badland-like stretch of not-rolling-enough desert emptiness, cut only by the two-lane highway and by monstrous crackling powerlines.... Anyway.