Desert Reckoning: A Town Sheriff, a Mojave Hermit, and the Biggest Manhunt in Modern California History by Deanne Stillman. Nation Books (308 pp.)
- What a wonderfully crafted book! Based on the author’s 2005 Rolling Stone article about the massive hunt for the killer of a California deputy sheriff, Desert Reckoning is an evocative, richly textured narrative that places the reader squarely amid the ranchers, outlaw bikers, and dropouts who eke out an existence in the unforgiving heat and isolation of the Mojave Desert, outside Los Angeles. The wild animals, honest folks, and human riff-raff of this hellacious place–all with their own stories–are central to Stillman’s account of the bright, drugged-out, dissipated hermit-killer Donald Kueck and the lawmen who give chase.
- This “shadow side of Los Angeles”—the 2,200-square-mile Antelope Valley, in the high Mojave Desert—is “a terrain of savage dignity, a vast amphitheater of startling wonders that puts on a show as the megalopolis burrows through the San Gabriel Mountains in its northward march,” writes the author. Here live both Donald Kueck, trailer-dwelling friend of birds and animals, lover of rockets, hater of civilization, explorer of the desert’s nooks and crannies, and the much-liked cop Stephen Sorensen, gunned down as he approached Kueck’s ramshackle nest. Weaving in stories of earlier desert crimes; of hawks, bobcats, and coyotes hunting for food in the night; of desperate and lonely people, including Kueck’s doomed son, Jello, dead of an overdose in a downtown LA warehouse, Stillman conjures the madness of the killer’s life and details the weeklong manhunt, which involved lawmen from many jurisdictions and ended with Kueck’s death amid fire and bullets.
- Unlike most true-crime books, Desert Reckoning is written in lovely lyrical prose. It renders beautifully the lives of the lost and marginalized souls who take refuge in the desert. Stillman’s serial abuse of the semicolon annoys. But her superb orchestration of her material, and her ability to keep us deeply engaged in this wild tale set in a terrible landscape, more than make up for that. Her earlier books are Mustang: The Saga of the Wild Horse in the American West and Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave. This time out, she has written something quite special–the kind of book you know you will read again. They give awards for that, don’t they?
Joseph Barbato edits Red Weather Review. His reviews and articles on books have appeared in The Washington Post, Smithsonian, The Chicago Tribune, and other publications. He is a former contributing editor at Publishers Weekly.