The High Desert: A Memoir by James Spooner

Review by David Starkey

On a grand scale, not much happens in The High Desert, James Spooner’s graphic memoir of his freshman year at Apple Valley High School, which he depicts as a cultural wasteland on the far side of the San Bernardino Mountains. However, on a granular level, assuming Spooner is faithful to the nonfiction element of memoir writing, he seems to remember just about everything that happened to him. Perhaps that’s appropriate, given how monumental each incident, no matter how trivial it might appear to an outsider, feels to anyone in their early teens.

James’s mother is long-divorced from his relentlessly unfaithful father, a former champion bodybuilder, and her peripatetic life has led her, in the late nineteen-eighties, back to Apple Valley, where James attended grammar school. He’s a skater in the early weeks of his homecoming, but he soon becomes transfixed by the world of punk rock.

That transition, and life in general, is not easy because James is African American and the high desert is home to enough racists—bikers and skinheads and jocks—to field a small army, which this group of Nazi-loving cretins often feels like. Fortunately, James has several guides to the world of punk. There’s Ty, the only other Afropunk at Apple Valley High; brainy but elusive Melody; Cyn, of the bad reputation; and, dubiously, Ethan, whose big brother is all in with the local violent skinheads. Naturally, James, Ty and Ethan form a band, The Filth and the Fury, and though they only play one song, in someone’s living room, the experience is clearly formative for all of them.

Yet James’s real guides to punk live far from the high desert. Just prior to the beginning of school, James visits Venice Beach, where he buys his first punk album, appropriately, Never Mind the Bollocks…Here’s the Sex Pistols, and receives some schooling from the local troublemakers. Far more significant is his Christmas break trip to see his father in New York. While the elder Spooner remains as disappointing, and adulterous, as ever, James is able to visit the East Village where, for the first time, punk rock truly comes alive for him—not just as an excuse for moshing and nose-thumbing, but also as cohesive anti-racist, anti-sexist, belief system. (These experiences later became the foundation for Spooner’s 2003 film AFRO-PUNK and the Afropunk Festivals.)

The High Desert is in black-and-white, which seems appropriate, not just because of the bleakness of life in Apple Valley and its environs, but also because of Spooner’s punk aesthetic, and, of course, the stark dichotomy between black and white people in James’s environment. Spooner does wonders with the color gray as a method of emphasizing the differences between characters, and as a mood modulator, especially in the desert night scenes.

“black. punk. nowhere,” the book’s tag reads, and while that might sound like a recipe for a depressing memoir, The High Desert is ultimately about the power of music to create community in the face of hatred, cynicism and nihilism.