By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
At their worst, Menendez‘s tales are too polite, too predictably New Yorker--ish with their tiny domestic dramas. (In ”The Last Rescue,“ one Anselmo lies awake at night, jealous of his wife’s friendship with a co-worker: ”Why hadn‘t she mentioned the tennis?“ he obsesses.) But at their best they’re brave and funny and true, as in ”Miami Relatives,“ a sad and hilarious portrait of the Cuban-American community personified as one spectacularly dysfunctional family. Grandma climbs a mango tree and spits cardamom seeds into the yard; a radio grows out of grandfather‘s ear (”Now Radio Mambi follows him everywhere, the high-pitched voices of the afternoon program seeping out of his pores like insects screaming“); Aunt Julia bites the mailman because she thinks he stole a letter from ”the old uncle in Havana,“ a mythologized Castro whose photo hangs in a darkened closet. ”We all pretend to hate the old uncle,“ the young narrator writes, ”but I’m thinking things are more complicated.“ Wiser than her elders, seeing through the webs of secrets and stories, she concludes: ”There is no curse. There is no bleeding moment when it all began. It is all very simple and funny: He is crazy because of us and we are crazy because of him.“
Deanne Stillman‘s Twentynine Palms: A True Story of Murder, Marines and the Mojave takes us back, as Boston Teran put it, ”through fired dimensions of lavaed rock and sand [to] the terrible country where no scream can be heard“ -- to the desert, that is, specifically to the military town of the title. Far more ambitious than your average teller of true-crime tales, Stillman goes beyond the bare details of her topic, the 1991 rape and murder of 15-year-old Mandi Scott and 20-year-old Rosie Ortega by a Marine named Valentine Underwood. She digs as deep as she can into the down-and-out desert culture in which the crime took place, providing an entire family history of Mandi’s clan (tracing the lineage matrilineally), which forms a sort of shadow history of California -- a long line of working-class women trying to escape their circumstances but finding themselves trapped and trapped again by dead-end jobs and men who start out nice but disappear or turn mean, or who start out mean and stay that way.
Mandi‘s mother, Debie McMaster, flees a number of such men and ends up hoping to get away and start over in a $200-a-month bungalow in Twentynine Palms. Stillman nicely describes the world in which her daughter grows up, a desert melange of bikers, Marines, poor whites, Samoans and black gangbangers in court-imposed exile from L.A., where teenage sex and crack are as common as Budweiser, which is very common indeed. Stillman, to her great credit, never patronizes or moralizes. She finds love, strength and heroism where Twentynine Palms’ upper-crust townspeople see only ”trash.“
Twentynine Palms is well-crafted, jumping back and forth between the events leading up to the murders and Underwood‘s trial and eventual sentencing seven years later. Only occasionally does Stillman’s prose tilt toward the melodramatic, anthropomorphizing the desert, describing yet again its unquenchable thirst for blood. The book‘s one real problem is Stillman’s inability to get into Marine culture with as much insight and compassion as she exhibits in her investigations of the off-base world. This may be out of revulsion for Underwood‘s crime, which is more than warranted, but the relative flatness of his character comes off as a failure of the imagination. Her explanation of his deeds as part of ”the longest undeclared war in military history, the military war on female civilians,“ while interesting and likely justified, doesn’t quite suffice. But overall, Stillman does what journalism always should -- she immerses herself and her reader in a world at which few desire even to peek, depriving both of the familiar comforts of prejudice and cliche.