Early in her novel Alibi Creek, Bev Magennis, succinctly sets the place of her story:
Tucked in a fold of the Mariposa Mountains, Brand had been overrun by unfamiliar faces, the locals showing their disapproval by shunning greetings, refusing to indulge in small talk, and forgetting names. Walker, however, saw this small, steady influx of newcomers as Opportunity for Lucrative Creativity. He’d have a close look at Ross Plank’s 1,280 acres, figure an angle to get him to part with it. The old skinflint had moved to Sierra Vista, Arizona, twelve years ago. What did he want with it, anyway?
Throughout the book, Magennis, a ceramic sculptor-cum-novelist who currently lives in Albuquerque, effortlessly crafts her story’s imagery for the reader’s benefit. She is a Toronto-born artist who followed a creative epiphany after a medical crisis in her late 40s, lived for 17 years in the New Mexico wilderness until 2010, and began writing. The novel reflects her own spellbound relationship with this southwestern state, courtesy of New Mexico’s vast, remote, untouched land masses sparsely occupied by people who cope with living in such extraordinary isolation by behaving eccentrically, impulsively and not always with altruistic intentions in mind.
Brand and Dax County are fictitious place names. However, her fiction also arises from the area’s paradoxical truths that preserve a status quo girded by nepotism and the comfort of completing private deals and secret budgets, knowing that few ever dare to take on the whistleblower’s role. For a state where one expects the epitome of independence as defined by its wilderness and its people who live and die by the cycles of nature and the seasons, there are instructive economic and political realities that always confound this identity.
In a Pew Charitable Trusts report summarizing statistics encompassing 2005 to 2014, New Mexico ranks second in the U.S. in terms of federal spending compared to the size of its economy (32.1 percent). The state’s population is aging faster than virtually anywhere else in the country, and more low-income residents are taking advantage of federal programs.
In addition, nearly 80,000 acres in the state that otherwise could be used for recreation and conservation purposes are tied up in unused oil and gas leases, as granted by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. In a 2015 report, The Wilderness Society indicated that many New Mexico lease suspensions are among the oldest in the country and dozens of new ones have been issued in the last five years. The land hoarders run the show, never having to pay royalties or rent.
Thus, Magennis’ fictional facts about the fictitious Dax County are based in solid reality. The question comes into sharp perspective: Just what real gains for the state’s residents and wilderness are being manifested through this marriage of convenience with an ever-increasing dependence on financial means outside of their control?
Alibi Creek is another novel in an expanding series of solid fiction published by Torrey House Press in Utah that brings the sociopolitical problems and the environmental issues of the American West to the public in compelling ways that supplement and amplify the outreach mission of nonprofit groups committed to preserving the West’s wilderness and public lands for the most responsible, respectful reasons of nature, the environment and science.
Magennis offers the reader a lot of relevant and timely substance. And, it is within the previously cited nonfictional realities and the author’s research and personal observations that make Walker believable – a career criminal just released from prison who returns to his family’s ranch in New Mexico. Lee Ann, his sister, is not looking forward to his return:
Her two-year reprieve had ended. But wait, she must make the best of an inevitable situation. Give him a chance. Forget the shame resulting from his past schemes, believe those escapades were over. Trust the boys were mature enough to resist farfetched, ill-fated temptations. Forgive. Forgive again, and [again].
While Magennis originally intended to make Walker the focus of her novel (she had researched several unsolved crimes and disappearances in the remote New Mexico wilderness), she shifted to Lee Ann, the dutiful public servant who sees through her obligations in her work at the county commissioners’ office and with her family, including two sons; her husband (Eugene), and loyal ranch hands. Lee Ann turns often to Biblical scripture and prayer, hoping that she can delay reconciling the blunt inevitable conflicts encroaching on her life, her work and the relationship with her brother.
Meanwhile, Walker is restless, wasting no time on contriving the biggest scheme of his life, as soon as he returns home: “Tomorrow. The distant future. Twenty minutes from now any plan would be forgotten. He didn’t waste a second of today thinking about what might happen after the sun went to bed, got a good night’s sleep, and topped the mesa in the morning.” He spares no detail in telling the locals about his days in prison. When the question arises: “Did he repent?” The telling response: “He’d have to think about that one.”
In contrast, Lee Ann willingly traps herself in an endless looping of routine. At work, where she landed the job when her uncle was commissioner, she handles the same issues repeatedly: “Although commissioners had come and gone over the years, she might have been dealing with the same three ranchers sitting poker-faced behind big bellies—facts and figures flying over their heads, procrastination their talent, private deals, secret budgets, and resistance to change their pact.” Her longevity at work is made possible by “obeying orders, storing facts, keeping secrets, and remaining impartial.”
When Walker returns from prison, Lee Ann still holds out for his rehabilitation, even if her instincts indicate differently. However, Lee Ann struggles to find the inner courage to see that her husband, Eugene, is right when he says, “He’s worse than useless. Not only does he not help, he undermines our efforts.” Lee Ann tries desperately to stave off the unavoidable outcome and offers barely reassuring words to her husband. Eugene responds, “You’re always sure. One thing I’m sure of is nothing you’re sure of with Walker ever comes to pass. Your certainty is a means of avoiding the inevitable.”
The reader occasionally might want to scream at Lee Ann to open her eyes. Eugene’s most stinging rebuke about her aggravating a bad situation still fails to move her: “When the happy carpenter whistles, he’s estimated wrong. That’s you, whistling away, ignoring a nightmare about to happen, denying how much you hate Walker, refusing to take a stand. You’re stuck in your faith, thinking it makes you strong, but it’s like quicksand, pulling you under.”
Magennis effectively sets the narrative to track Lee Ann’s excruciating yet deliberate evolution in acknowledging the deep shortcomings of her blind faith. The author shapes the contours skillfully in the tension about whether Lee Ann will ever speak bluntly and confront directly the issues.
At the same time, Walker works his straightforward charm with women enamored by his bad boy persona. There is Jo, the woman who as a kid was “a silent partner in his schemes, egging him on for her own delight.” After he and his wife Danielle split, he contemplated marrying Jo, “but that orange, cotton candy hair and all those freckles—couldn’t do it.”
He is adept at giving his smooth-talking ways a believable air of well-intentioned pragmatism. In the biggest scheme of his life, Walker visits Plank on his deathbed, trying to convince him not to leave the burden of dealing with the legal and business ends of his ranch to his only son, Owen. Agile and limber in rhetoric, Walker seals the deal, telling Plank that deeding the ranch to him rather than his son would be the proper “final gift” – “a way you can prove your love and kindness.”
There is no denying that Walker is an awful, outrageously self-absorbed con artist but Magennis weaves together fabulously the dysfunctional genius of Walker’s persuasive powers. “He’ll have to oversee the care of the ranch until probate is completed,” Walker tells the old man. “Afterwards, he’ll have to decide what to do with the property while hearing the sorrow of your death. Ross, I still feel sad over my dad’s passing and it’s been over sixteen years. The missing never goes away. The love never dies. Owen will be carrying you in his heart long after you’ve gone, the way you carry Charlotte. The least you can do is make the practical matters easy on him.” Meanwhile, Walker barely notices that his mother, cared for by his sister, is nearing her own death.
In astute contrast, Magennis rounds out Lee Ann’s character with numerous Biblical quotations. Trust in prayer, in Lee Ann’s estimation despite her husband’s dismissal of faith, would help her sufficiently atone for being a “patsy,” an enabler, the lingering and increasingly disturbing feeling that “passive acquiescence amounted to active participation.” She believes that her faith would ultimately sustain her as well as her marriage and family.
At one key moment in her spiritual crisis, Lee Ann finally confronts the profound meaning of Proverbs 27:4 — Wrath is cruel, anger is overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?
It signifies the many, many smart choices Magennis makes in using these quotations to stake the guideposts in her narrative and of Lee Ann’s choices that eventually pivot toward reclaiming her own genuine soul without the crutch of religion or previously justified excuses.
And, there’s the literary bonus of the author’s imagery and its foreshadowing impact, echoing the cumulative practice of a well-honed artistic eye. There is a simple elegance to be admired in passages such as these:
Animal patterns had shifted; bears seeking havens in which to hibernate, birds heading south, squirrels hoarding acorns, rodents wintering in, everyone putting on a warm coat. Bruja Mountain, her craggy, pockmarked face more visible out here, warned of ominous, unpredictable events—flash floods, wind storms, blizzards, hail in July, forest fires. He snubbed the witch, flipping his fingers off his chin. The glorious day would not fall under her spell. As a matter of fact, old woman, life had taken a turn for the better. Tomorrow he’d be rich. Bruja’s enemy, Lady Luck, was on his side.
Alibi Creek is an outstanding introduction for Magennis. Her next novel in progress is set as an unconventional love story about a woman living in a remote area who falls in love with an undocumented Mexican immigrant, despite the language difficulties in communicating. The author of several short stories, she is an alumna of the Iowa Writers Workshop and she received various honors including the Pen USA Emerging Voices Fellowship and the Norman Mailer Writers Colony Fiction Fellowship.
For more information about the book and its availability, see the Torrey House Press website.