Desert Sundays takes place in the small rural town of Lunden, Arizona. It’s a place where everyone knows everyone and everyone talks. Three characters arrive over a period of about three years, each of them rather misfits in their former lives and each looking to find some missing piece of a puzzle to help them pull their lives into something true, something that will give them a sense of peace and self-worth.
The first to arrive is Joseph, 28, a former teacher has been brought up by his aunt and uncle, off the reservation on a ranch in Montana. Son of a white father and a Crow mother, his step-father brought him up to be proud of his heritage and his education made him want to change the outcomes for the many children on reservations who find life futile and discouraging, to give them a brighter future. He tutors some of the students on the near-by reservation and hunts his own food. About two years after Joseph has settled in a home on the edge of the reservation near the desert, Mae arrives. When her car breaks down and Joseph rescues her, they fall into an easy friendship, sharing their Sundays watching the sun rise over a kiva Joseph has discovered and excavated not far from his home. Hence the title. Mae sings and plays guitar at a local restaurant/bar called Chuck’s Desert Oasis two nights a week, and, since she has a degree in accounting, spends tax-prep season working more hours filing returns for people than singing.
The story begins with Joseph and Mae setting out on one of their before-dawn desert Sundays. Over lunch, Mae tells Joseph about a rather interesting newcomer she met at the bar.
“Interested in you? Let’s see, new in town, smart college professor from the East, drinks Chablis, impeccable taste in folk music,” Joseph pondered, “probably drives a sports car. Sounds irresistible.”
Mae giggled. “He does drive a sports car.”
“This could be big trouble if you ask me,” Joseph said feigning concern. “What’s he doing here?”
“I’m not sure and I’m not sure he even knows. . . He told me things weren’t going well where he came from and that he needed a break.”
Enter, Tom. It isn’t long before the Sunday trips to the desert include Tom, and as the present unfolds, we find that each of these three “misfits” have a story to tell.
Goodman has an intriguing way of intertwining the past and the present. Each character begins his own story, and, except for Mae, the story is taken over by a 3rd person narrator. I found Joseph’s story extremely interesting as it told of him seeking redemption for what he perceives as his failure help and protect a student in his charge by using the kiva to create a holy place for meditation, fasting, and recreation of a Sun Dance based on researched information.
Tom, as the most recent addition, tells of his extremely boring recent past until his new neighbour, a war vet, motorcyclist who gets him drinking beer and going to mind-broadening events like cage-fights, and while encouraging him to think outside his ivy league box, imparts words of wisdom on how to get along in a different world than he has known. However, Tom has another story in the far past, a time when he was still at university trying to work on his Phd to become an English professor. This past is, to my thinking, over long and full of graphic sex which I think detracts from an otherwise well-written story.
Mae’s story is also in two parts. Flashbacks to a diary she kept on first arriving in Lunden, fill us in on her first impressions, her developing friendship with Joseph, and some hints of a darker past which continues to haunt her. It also sets us up with background information we need for the feud between Joseph and the swaggering, loudmouth, tow truck driver, Roger. Mae’s far past is told in the first person to Tom close to the end of the book, and it, too, has some rather disturbing graphic images.
The story had, for me, a surprising end, and was a quite compelling read. It is a tale well told with some wonderful imagery of the desert, and native lore. From the publisher’s summary, I didn’t get what I expected, although the story does cause us to reexamine our ideas of justice vs moral justice, varying degrees of personal loss, and the idea of the metaphysical and visions. It was an interesting read, and an excellent debut novel. * * * *
I received a free copy of this novel in ebook format from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.