Kush, Watts, and Karinger are resilient twelve-year-olds in the rural Antelope Valley, a desolate, desert-bordered town north of Los Angeles. Their friendship, forged through boyhood adventures and paintball fights in the heat of the Mojave Desert, runs through twelve interlinked stories in Chris McCormick’s debut story collection, Desert Boys. The book is a modern-day coming-of-age tale with a fast pace—stories jump around in time to recount the life of Daley “Kush” Kushner as he struggles to escape, return to, and redeem his hometown life and relationships.
Despite its distinct stories, Desert Boys has the cohesion of a novel with its fixed cast of characters and tactfully interlaced plot lines. Each story stands on its own, but they all explore themes of loss, boyhood, growing up, and leaving home. Kush, the protagonist, is thoughtful and sharp, a suitable tour guide for the wild, weird world of the Antelope Valley—“the AV”—and its eclectic but endearing residents. Some of McCormick’s best material involves peripheral characters: a local dad employs Kush to sculpt a perfect circle in his yard for palm trees, which are then transplanted from L.A.; a local trailer park contractor, employed by Kush’s uncle, rehabs VW buses in the desert; and a black classmate rallies for school spirit as the high school’s confederate soldier mascot. When the classmate goes on to become a successful Bay Area politician, his mascot role draws national media and criticism to the school.
Relationships, intimate or otherwise, are key to our understanding of Kush, who is quietly coming to terms with being gay, liberal, and restless in a place where those qualities are not status quo. We initially watch him masquerade in an effort to hide his eccentricities, though his closest friends and family know more than they tell. Eventually, Kush’s relationships deepen as the characters grow increasingly honest with one another.
Emotional dynamics are central to Desert Boys since Kush is heavily introspective. He simultaneously loves and resents the AV and its people. That includes his best friend, Robert Karinger, who later marries their friend Jackie Connolly and leaves the AV for the army. The ill-fated first love is both tender and painful, and its external acknowledgement, which appears in “Mother, Godfather, Baby, Priest,” is poignant.
Equally powerful is “How to Revise a Play,” written in second person, in which Kush returns to the AV from his new life in San Francisco to introduce his father to his boyfriend, Lloyd. As in other stories, the tension of the scenario unearths new idiosyncrasies between the characters, and the book progresses with an unexpected investment in each.
McCormick writes mostly in the third and first person, with shifting points of view and unpredictable story structures that add texture to the book’s content. Lists come with rewarding payoffs in “The Stars are Faggots, and Other Reasons to Leave,” and subtitles lend humor to “The Tallest Trees in the Antelope Valley.” Stories are familiar in scope, but unexpected in structure; the book, much like Kush, rarely stills.
The Antelope Valley is also dynamic, and serves as a character in Desert Boys as it undergoes its own transformation in the early 2000s. What begins as a stagnant, conservative town, filled with yellow-ribbon-clad trucks and Iraq War supporters, becomes a place branded by transplants, strip malls, and state-of-the-art oddities like the neighbor’s imported palm trees. The environment reflects its characters and vice versa. Karinger’s girlfriend, Jackie Connolly, is described as someone “beautiful in the way people call the desert beautiful, which is to say that although some people actually believe it, most of the time it was said in response to someone else’s degradation of it.”
Across stories, inconsistent descriptions add complexity to Kush’s relationships. While Kush mostly envies Jackie for her time as Karinger’s girlfriend, in one story she appears, much earlier, as a nonthreatening classmate who likes horses. Kush’s perceptions of people change as he grows, his family being a prime example—the Kushners are tight-knit but independent, with working class parents who are both proud and pained to watch their children succeed and leave home. The family is likeably entangled: Kush’s conservative, Armenian-immigrant mother, his quiet, Midwest-transplant father, and his ambitious older sister, Jean, who for a time insists that her name be pronounced like parmesan. As conflicts come and go, we see Kush perceive each of them differently.
Perhaps most significantly, Kush’s relationships with Watts and Karinger are ever-changing. The boys are at ease, then at odds. We see them meet and part ways. Each upholds his singular experience in what McCormick calls: “what you thought would always be true: that you could leave home, return to it, and nothing would be different except for you.”
With sound storytelling and a new and clever voice, Desert Boys is a loss-informed picture of a place and people that are discordant, yet endearing. Appropriately, the stories in Desert Boys are like childhood relationships—informing you, sending you on to something new, and inevitably resurfacing. Thematically similar to Justin Torres’ We the Animals, Desert Boys involves more characters and a broader setting. In a cultural moment when young adults move frequently from place to place, Kush is a funny and hopeful participant in the experience of growing up—a young adult untethered, considering when to stay and when to leave, when to adventure and when to come home.