Miller’s style bears repeating, he must feel, because every essay assumes the same voice and similar structure. The title conveys the major theme, but Miller’s way is theme and variations. His “La Bamba” essay, for example, begins with a consideration of a travel music mix for a Southwest jaunt, selected for location. Depending upon where your wheels are rolling, sounds would include Indian flute by R. Carlos Nakai, country folk by Latie Lee, chicken scratch music by Joe Miguel and the Blood Brothers, Alice Cooper because you're in his hometown, cantina rolas from Los Blues Ventures, and broadly regional work from Los Lobos and Los Tigres del Norte. One song, Miller suggests, fits the entire region, “La Bamba.”
The essay looks at the Ritchie Valens oldie rock version then explores further south into Veracruz and jarocho music, then back into history with Cortés and the European invasion’s syncretic influences on Mexican sounds. Miller’s musical journey U-turns from Xalapa to McCarthysim, noting folksinger Travis Edmonson was hauled before “a congressional hearing because he performed a foreign folk tune assumed to be about the bomb.”
Enriching the essay, Miller doesn’t drop "La Bamba" and stop there. Instead, he circles around the rim of the Morenci mine, delving into its ballad, “Open Pit Mine,” then heads east to the west Texas town of El Paso and Marty Robbins' hit about wicked Felina and a wild young cowboy’s misplaced passion. True to his travel genre, Miller takes you not only through the song but also to the “real” Rosa’s Cantina and associated ironies.
The title essay,"Revenge of the Saguaro," offers a gem of storytelling and righteous retribution. In a well-refined narrative, Miller tells of the death of a loser named David Grundman. Having told the story numerous times, Miller observes, not a single listener expressed any remorse over Grundman’s death. I am not the first to feel it, nor will you. You, as I, will side with Ha:san, a Saguaro cactus.
The essay links Ha:san's growing years to historical benchmarks. Saguaros themselves have populated the earth for 10,000 years. Ha:san germinated as a microscopic seedling during the hegemony of James Buchanan. In this period, the Supremes hand down their mistaken Dred Scott decision, some invader discovers gold along the Gila River, and Mexicanos are being swindled out of their lands and culture supposedly guaranteed by the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.
In 1912, Ha:san’s tierra becomes the State of Arizona. Now 55 years old and standing 8 feet tall, Ha:san blooms.
One happy sad day, Grundman and his pal load up on ammo and birongas and drive out to the wilderness where Grundman and pal kill a half-dozen Saguaros of varying sizes and histories. When Grundman drops the hammer on Ha:san, the hundred twenty-five year old 3000 pound magnificence refuses to fall. The drunken pendejo attacks Ha:san with the dried rib of a long-dead Saguaro. Too close, menso. Whump! Grundman is felled by Ha:san’s 500 pound arm. Then Whu-ump! Ha:san herself, devastated by the frenzied attack and unbalanced from her lost arm, succumbs to gravity and comes crashing down on the exact spot where Grundman lies under the fallen arm. “The joke was on David Grundman, and so was Ha:san. . . . Grundman lay face-up, dead beneath a ton and a half and 125 years of cactus…Natural selection had played its hand.”
The title story alone is well worth the time spent with Tom Miller’s ambling, oft intricate story-telling. You’ll likely enjoy the history of velvet painting, backstage stuff on the films “Milagro Beanfield War” and “Salt of the Earth,” ride-alongs with eco-terrorists, and ample helpings of social irony and salutes to lost causes and Miller's personal heroes.
I hope you’ll read and enjoy Revenge of the Saguaro. If so, you’ll also enjoy William Least Heat Moon’s Blue highways : a journey into America for much the same reasons. They're the same book, only different. Per WorldCat, the latter is available in only 68 libraries worldwide, a real lastima because these two titles are kissin’ cousins of the curious byways of United States culture.
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