Leigh Podgorski’s biography notes “her scholarship and fascination with the diverse cultures of the Earth” and her novel Desert Chimera is a testament to both that attention to detail and her desire to do justice to the beauty and complexity of those cultures. Set over a period of less than twenty four hours in the evocatively named Desert Wolf Café located “on a lonesome slice of highway” in Death Valley, four characters are brought together to witness another two fight for control of their entwined destinies. These six very diverse individuals with lovely names – café owner Eppie Falco, handyman Leo Monroe, travellers Mack Starr and Consuelo Vasquez, and the two central characters Luke Stone and Armand Jacobi – are well painted by the author and their natural, well-rounded dialogue plays a significant part in drawing the reader in.
Luke and Armand are not simply the polar opposites of each other, a psychic visionary and a black magician, but they each know intimately the power of the other’s abilities. Luke owes something of his earlier survival to Armand, and he knows his nemesis’s motivations as well as his skills. Armand is willing to pursue that debt Luke owes him, and the novel explores the challenges individuals face when seeking independence from their past, and redemption towards their future. This is though not merely a novel which draws on the familiar aspects of good and evil, and the complexities of spirituality. It also owes a great deal to its geographical setting and the traditions of spirituality and belief that belong to the earlier inhabitants of that place, both in the specific and broader senses. Podgorski’s atmospheric descriptions of the environment of the novel echo the respect paid by the native American cultures to their environment, and at no time in the novel does the author let us forget of the intimate relationship between people and their surroundings.
The compact time period of the novel keeps the action moving along quickly, though it is interspersed with a lot of flashbacks as Luke in particular remembers his past encounters with Armand. This book has been adapted from the author’s own play, and I’m guessing the author enjoyed the opportunity to ‘fill in the gaps’ around the backstory. For example, there are some lovely echoes of Oliver Twist and Fagin in the author’s descriptions of Armand and his gang of boys in New York, though with more sinister overtones, and these flashbacks are vividly portrayed as we learn about what experiences have formed Luke and his relationship with Armand. These are useful for the narrative though I found them at times to be a bit too long and a bit too detailed. Indeed, that is perhaps where the author is both her best friend and worst enemy: in seeking to give us such a vivid insight into how each of the characters are feeling, I found the writing gets slowed down at times by the sheer volume of words she uses to describe the detail.
Nonetheless, this is a compelling first volume in the Stone Quest series, and it will be fascinating to see where Luke goes from here.