Data is not the material from which the average work of fiction or memoir is crafted. These arise from ectoplasmic, plastic substances—experience, fancy, themata, language itself. Nor, it seems, is data, related to “truth,” a basis for pitching a news story. It is tough to sell a news story based on statistical frequency of a given phenomenon, say, the number of children born drug-addicted in a given low-income housing complex in the South Bronx. Instead you could sell a true story about one child, the rise and fall of how that child fails to thrive, thrives, fails finally or thrives finally.
Most everyone speeds on the road that runs alongside Cisco, Utah. It can be hard not to, once you work your way into that feeling of empty space and no one to hold you accountable. The town, after all, doesn’t look like much — a desolate mess of ruined buildings on the scenic route from I-70 to the recreation mecca of Moab, Utah, just a few miles from the boat ramp on the Colorado River where rafters load up after running Westwater Canyon. A cursory internet search will tell you that Cisco has cameoed in car chases in the movies Thelma and Louise and Vanishing Point, and may have inspired the Johnny Cash song “Cisco Clifton’s Fillin’ Station.” Without fail, articles about Cisco will also tell you that it’s a ghost town. This irritates Eileen Muza. Cisco is not abandoned, she often points out: “I live here.”
The La Sal Mountains rise up south of Eileen’s home, and Cisco stands in the Cisco Desert, in an exposed, waterless low spot that one book describes without irony as “a hole.” But Eileen has her own names for things, her own landmarks. “My Mountains.” “The One Tire Valley.” “The Green Valley.” And the Cisco Desert itself — a scrubby barren plumbed with pump jacks and shimmering with broken glass? Eileen calls that “The Unknown.”
The Unknown was not why Eileen moved to Cisco. It might be a reason that she stays, though, if she stays. It is also the reason it is so hard to stay. The desert here is not nice the way it is in Moab, with its shapely red-rock expanses and verdant cottonwood bottoms. In Cisco, even the light has blades. One time, a lake of oil leaked from a pump jack inside town limits. Another, Eileen looked up to discover two men shooting in her direction from the window of a white pickup.
As a young republic, our nation embraced the dressings of many lands: Italian, French, Russian and the magical Thousand Islands. But with the creation — and inexorable rise — of ranch, we have forged the one true American dressing.
Invented in the 1950s, ranch is now far and away the most popular salad dressing in the country, according to a 2017 study by the Association for Dressings and Sauces, an industry group. (Forty percent of Americans named ranch as their favorite dressing; its nearest competitor, Italian, came in at 10 percent.) And it has spread far beyond salad.
At its base, writing is an act of drawing, of applying short, black intersecting lines to a white page. When illegible to a reader, the graphic page fails to represent a world through words and remains an abstract patterning of black on white. This disconnect, between the way a page looks and the way a page means, is, perhaps, one reason why so many writers have taken up the topic of color — how color works, what color is, what color signifies, how one might write color. According to Goethe, for example, the color of the shadow cast by a pencil placed between a short candle and a white sheet of paper at sunset is blue. Colette wrote on blue paper. William Gass saw language itself as blue. And writing is colored in other ways too — purple prose, yellow journalism, lavender linguistics. Gilbert Sorrentino was interested in “orange” — a color named for the fruit, not vice versa — as the word with which nothing rhymes. He composed an entire book of poems (The Orangery) around the color. A dear college friend of mine used “orange sense of smell” to write a certain kind of depression — that experience of feeling outside of things, out of sync, out of rhyme. Orange was how some of us later came to understand his eventual suicide.
“Dear America” is a potent rejoinder to those who tell Vargas he’s supposed to “get in line” for citizenship, as if there were a line instead of a confounding jumble of vague statutes and executive orders — not to mention the life-upending prospect of getting deported to a country he barely remembers. “I was in a toxic, abusive, codependent relationship with America, and there was no getting out,” he writes. “Who am I without America? What would I be without America?” The terrible irony isn’t lost on him; decades after arriving to these shores, he has yet to breathe free.