(Editor’s note: This is the 144th installment in The Rap Sheet’s continuing series about great but forgotten books.)
By Steven Nester
Paula Haller is a headstrong 17-year-old whose widowed mother owns a bordello and gambling saloon in the desert town of Chuckawalla, California. It’s the 1940s, the Second World War is over, and Paula is itching to grow up. She doesn’t really come off as that much of a bad girl, but her desire to give up on school and learn the family business raises the hackles on domineering mother Fritzi’s marabou pumps, and she’ll hear nothing of it. Nor is Fritzi enamored of Paula hanging around bronco busters, even if they are the local sheriffs as well as Fritzi’s business partners. Fritzi wants Paula to grow up a lady, but nothin’ doin’—Ramona Stewart’s Desert Town (1946) is a “cactus graveyard” where the movie theater “smells like an old cowboy.” There’s not much a mother can do when her little girl decides to pick her own route through life; except, perhaps, let nature take its course and allow her to learn the hard way.
Fritzi Haller is one tough cookie. With eyes that are “old with years of violent living and painful knowledge,” she commands the respect earned with bruises, fat lips, and heartache. She left a successful speakeasy business in New Jersey to make a new life for herself in the sunny warmth of California’s Imperial Valley, and picked up where she left off, showing the local judge and constabulary how much money can be made from human weakness.
Everyone in town “always gave Fritzi Haller one’s complete attention,” except for Paula. She refuses to heed the guidance of her life-tempered mother, and she wants to get out and play a role in the big wide world. Her chance arrives when “big-city racketeer” Eddie Benedict comes to Chuckawalla, hoping to lay low for a while. He draws Paula to him, and she gladly swaps algebra lessons for the chance to run with this new alpha dog—until she begins to understand his complicated relationship with sidekick Johnny Ryan, and their fatal relationship with Benedict’s dead wife, Angela.
Desert Town (adapted in 1947 as the film Desert Fury) is about power: who has it, who wants it, and how real power—the kind that has influence in the world—is patient, ruthless, and implacable. But the immature Paula only understands power in its simplest form: “In Paula’s picture of the world-jungle, the wise man casts his lot with the strong. And in that jungle, Eddie Benedict was a stronger force than Fritzi Haller.” The primordial urge that Benedict arouses in Paula can be felt by her but is not easily understood, which at the beginning of their relationship causes confusion in the teenager. However, page by page, with textbook coherence and clarity, Paula learns the nuances of power and the many forms it can take. In prose that’s controlled but not miserly, a somewhat prim Stewart hints at what lays at the core of the animal attraction that tugs at Paula’s bodice without tearing it off in view—even while Paula at times seems confused about who’s doing the tugging: Benedict, or the gentlemanly and sympathetic Deputy Sheriff Luke Sheldon, who shows Paula another type of power.
While she feels Benedict’s “tide of animal warmth which flowed into her palm [and] startled her,” Sheldon has also made a strong impression on Paula. He attempts to alert her to the depths of Benedict’s intentions, demonstrating the same brand of benevolence he also shows a neglected Chuckawalla wife—the town drunk, whose desirous suggestions he has managed to resist. Sheldon is a good cop and a good man; so good, in fact, that Sheriff Pat Johnson, Fritzi’s partner, is worried he might blow the whistle on Deputy Tom Hansen, a former rodeo champion whose heavy-handed jailhouse manner cost a drifter his life, and in the process attract unwanted attention to the town’s institutionalized iniquity. Paula responds to Sheldon, acknowledging that the “gentle gravity of his regard stirred her emotions as a stick stirs a muddy pool.” But while her interest is piqued, she remains intent on Benedict.
Finally at the bottom of her learning curve of relationships with men, Paula skips the junior high school prom and instead heads straight to the honeymoon suite. She mistakes Benedict’s worldly impetuousness for potency (“It was strong because it did not stop for consequences. It rushed headlong toward the fulfillment of its desire”), not understanding that it’s actually a weak man who willfully disregards consequences, whether business or personal. It takes
sidekick Johnny Ryan to teach her that lesson.
Ryan soon begins to make his subtle domination over Eddie Benedict more apparent, masterful, and heavy-handed. He cunningly prevents Benedict’s growing infatuation with Paula from interfering with his and Benedict’s triumphant return to the rackets. And once Benedict’s frailties are revealed to Paula (“Everything I thought was his was Johnny’s”), she calls it quits.
Paula returns to Fritzi’s orbit, and resumes what had been her onetime career goal of breaking horses. Fritzi would rather have her daughter ultimately join the family business, and thinks Paula foolish for her choice, but she respects the teenager for striking out on her own and for working toward a future that will depend on hard work to be successful. True to character, she pays Paula the most genuine compliment a tough-talking but loving mother can give a daughter
who has taken charge of her circumstances: “At least you’re a sucker with guts enough to go after what she wants.”