Many people know what it is like to spend your childhood and adolescence growing up in a city, the suburbs, or the rural country, but few people can say that they grew up in the desert. For Daley Kushner, the desert town of California’s Antelope Valley – which, he notes, hasn’t seen a real live antelope in over a hundred years – was, and in many ways still is, his home. Daley, who is known by his two best friends, Robert Karinger and Dan Watts as simply “Kush”, struggles through an awkward adolescence as he comes to terms with the intersectionality of his ethic and religious backgrounds – his mother is an Armenian orthodox Christian – and his sexual orientation – identifying himself as both gay and queer – and what that means for his life living in a small, predominantly white, conservative community. Alongside Karinger and Watts, Kush learns what it means to live both inside and outside of a community that rejects outsiders and is constantly challenging his own understanding of home and what that means to him. Eventually, Kush leaves the Antelope Valley for San Francisco, where he attends college and enjoys a life that brings him both career and romantic fulfillment and freedom, but life circumstances, including his mother’s illness and passing of a friend, continually bring him back to the Antelope Valley. Kush is ultimately confronted with the question of what constitutes a home and whether or not you can ever truly leave a place, or people, in your past.
Chris McCormick’s beautiful yet simple prose is captivating over the course of the short vignettes that compose his debut novel, Desert Boys. His treatment of central themes of racism and sexuality is subtly woven within the text, occasionally bursting through in moments of tension; these themes are highlighted in particular by the bond Kush and Watts share by being young men of color in a predominantly white town and Kush’s confusing relationship with Karinger, which comes to a head when Karinger confronts Kush about being queer and how that fits in with the hyper-masculine homophobic context of Antelope Valley. This book would particularly resonate with students who live in small towns or who feel particularly restrained by their geographic reality. McCormick posits both positives and negatives for choosing to leave or settle within the limits of your home town, but ultimately leaves the decision up to the reader to choose for themselves. Ultimately, Desert Boys is a great reminder to all that while the places we are from do not define or confine us, we carry those places and those people with us whether or not we choose to physically leave them behind. McCormick asks a lot of pertinent questions about identity formation and how that is related to our respective contexts and surrounding influences that would resonate with high school students.
Written by Josh Quinones
MLA citation: McCormick, Chris. Desert boys. New York: Picador, 2016. Print.