Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Greg Jackson’s “Wagner in the Desert” was originally published in the July 21, 2014 issue of The New Yorker.
I love lists, especially lists that end with a good punch line. So Greg Jackson had me from the beginning of “Wagner in the Desert.” Lists give me the expansive sense of knowing all about something, whales, for instance, something I know nothing about. In this case, Jackson starts his story listing all the drugs he and his pals did over a vacation “waiting, I suppose, to feel at peace, to baptize our minds in an enforced nullity, to return to a place from which we could begin again.”
And despite the fact that drugs are not a part of my life (and why that is is a long story, but I will give you this — paranoia is not something I’m willing to risk more than once), anyway, despite that fact, I loved this story.
I am always wanting “to return to a place from which [I] could begin again.”
So that it is part of why I liked this story. (Also, I have to be partial to someone whose mind also thinks in the “from which” vein.) And, to be able to begin again is part of the daily double — to want to do what’s important despite maybe not knowing, at any given time, what something being important would be.
The narrator’s friend Marta has her own list — a “Baby Bucket List” — all the things she wants to do before she has to get sensible. These include:
every last thing that a baby precludes. Every last irresponsible thing, so as, I guess, to be able to say, Yes, I have lived, I have done the things that mean you have lived, brushed shoulders with the lurid genie Dionysus, who counsels recklessness and abandon, decadence, self-destruction, and waste.
Eli and Marta have invited two friends who don’t know each other (the narrator and Lily) to spend a vacation in Palm Springs getting as high as possible. The four of them (and all their buddies) are peas in a pod:
a particular sort of modern hustler: filmmakers and writers (screen, Web, magazine), who periodically worked as narrative consultants on ad campaigns, sustainability experts, P.R. lifers, designers or design consultants, social entrepreneurs, and that strange species of human being who has invented an app. We rubbed elbows with media moguls and Hollywood actors and the lesser known but still powerful strata that include producers and directors and C.F.Os, and the half-famous relatives of the more famous.
The list continues, and continues to be interesting, and then observes, “We thought we were not bad people. Not the best, a bit spoiled, maybe, but pleasant, insouciantly decent.”
In the course of this drugged-out sojourn, the writer-narrator has several encounters: a couple of Hasids appear and disappear; a ranger; a Hollywood producer-financier gives a brilliant speech; and Lily, the blind date, explains it all.
I liked this story a lot for several reasons. Mostly because of its service to the idea of wanting to get back to where we can begin again, but also because I loved the long, expanding sentences, and I liked how real it seemed, how somehow trustworthy, despite the drugs. And, of course, I loved spying on a life I don’t live, but always thought would have been interesting if I weren’t so scared of falling off the edge.
I have more I want to say about the writing, but I would rather let you get to it.
While I wait to see what people have to say, I want to comment that Greg Jackson needs a web-site. Who knew there were so many Greg(g) Jacksons? Until one appears, however, it seems that Jackson has recently gotten an MFA from Virginia in Charlottesville, won a big prize and is on his way. Best of luck to him. I really enjoyed this story.