Behind the Slickrock Curtain is a novel — literary fiction, with a pinch of post-modern mystery and environmental thriller thrown in. It’s a novel of place, a road trip book, a tome for our post-truth age, and a tragicomic romp through the Anthropocene, replete with searing, irreverent, abrasive, satirical, and occasionally sad commentary and insight.
The narrative unfolds in the spectacular sacrifice zone known as the Four Corners Country, taking readers from a winter’s night on Cedar Mesa some twenty years ago, to near-future Tucson, Winslow, Farmington, and Durango, before returning to Utah. Most of the action takes place within the original (pre-shrinkage) boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument.
Malcolm Brautigan is one of the protagonists — if someone as flawed as he is can be a protagonist. He once was an environmental journalist, writing byzantine wonk-fests for the Tucson Tribune. Then Brautigan’s marriage fell apart, and, under pressure from the Tribune‘s corporate owners, he penned a widely-read, but partly fabricated article exposing a sleazy bit of collusion between a local environmental group and a “green” developer of a “sustainable” desert community of 10,000 people. Not a good idea, particularly since the developer was dating Malcolm’s soon-to-be-ex-wife at the time. Malcolm lost his job and, after slaving away for a “content mill,” found a new path: Producing fake news. He is now the editor-in-chief of Alt-News.org. He manages to pay his rent and stay stocked up with Bombay Sapphire gin, his chosen salve for a chafed conscience.
Eliza Santos is Malcolm’s partner in protagonism. She is an artist, creating sculpture/dioramas — entire worlds — from books, clay, and found objects. As of late she’s been far more productive artistically than her husband, Peter Simons, despite the fact that she’s working full-time as a librarian to pay the family bills. To her, Malcolm is as much an irritant as he is a hero of this tale. She’s witty, brash, and principled. Her major flaw: She spends an inordinate amount of time devising harebrained business schemes with her friend Ann in hopes of making enough cash to live a truly Bohemian lifestyle lolling around in the sunshine and eating sardines in a small village in Portugal.
Peter Simons is Eliza’s husband, Malcolm’s oldest friend, and a moderately successful painter who has abandoned that medium to focus on far less lucrative environmental/land/performance art (e.g. a pyrotechnic dance performance on a uranium tailings depository, Tang-orange breed of corn planted to commemorate the Gold King Mine spill, etc.). His latest project is in this vein, but is also a mystery. We only know that it is inspired by his belief that the Gold King Mine spill was the ultimate piece of environmental art. He’s obsessed with originality in his work, possibly due to a dark secret from his past. A couple of weeks before the Summer Solstice he heads out into southern Utah to do research for his art installation. He doesn’t return.
Plot: Eliza and Malcolm set off for the canyons of San Juan County, Utah, in search of the missing Peter, their only clues a series of mysterious files found on Peter’s laptop relating to tar sands, adventure resorts, and an ethically suspect Secretary of Interior. They are drawn into a dangerous dance with petroleum engineers, the ghost of a uranium tycoon, energy developers, corrupt politicians, adventure capitalists — and a “monster” and its “daughters.” Along the way the book delves into journalism in the post-truth era, art, beauty, environmental protection, the deadly legacy left by the nuclear age, and the power of friendship — all with a healthy dollop of sexual and intellectual tension and humor.
What the fake critics are saying:
“Thrilling …. riveting … a real page-turner! It’s a joy to ride along with post-truth heroes Santos and Brautigan on this saucy, sassy romp through the Anthropocene!”
— Juan Lopez-Shapiro, Editor-in-Chief of Alt-News.org
“It’s okay, I guess, but what’s up with that pumpjack sex scene? Is that what they mean by post-modern?”
— Chad, some guy on the street
“If you combined Carl Hiaasen, Lydia Millet, Chuck Bowden, and … Wait? It’s kind of perverse to do that, isn’t it? And do you have their consent? Anyway, maybe if you twisted all of their writings together you’d end up with something kind of like Behind the Slickrock Curtain. Or not.”
— Michael Baines, Culture Editor at Alt-News.org
— Laurel, journalism professor and Brautigan’s former editor at the Tucson Tribune
“First there was the War on Christmas. And now Behind the Slickrock Curtain?!? What’s this world coming to?”
— Brad Melcher, Political Reporter at Alt-News.org