The image of a disconnected phone recurs throughout Stillman's tale of social and geographic isolation, military arrogance, sexual violence and death an apt symbol for the disconnections pervading the story. Unfortunately, the metaphor also extends to Stillman's narrative, which signals the plumbing of certain depths, but never makes the connections. The small California town of Twentynine Palms in the Mojave Desert, three hours east of Los Angeles, hosts the world's largest U.S. Marine Corps base. In 1991, it was the setting for the vicious murder of two local teenage girls by a troubled marine. Stillman's story primarily follows Debie McMaster, mother of one of the victims and no stranger to violence herself. Against the desert backdrop described with poetic and geologic detail Stillman examines military life and the surrounding subculture, focusing on jittery soldiers trolling for susceptible young women, themselves desperate for a way out. But exhaustive family histories and a fragmented structure undermine the story's inherent drama. Moreover, Stillman neither affords much insight into the killer's motivations, nor adequately explores the military atmosphere that allowed him to thrive. To her credit, she approaches the hand-to-mouth existence typical of Twentynine Palms with a certain aplomb, but too often the prose becomes crowded with the vernaculars of the subcultures it describes. Stillman, who first reported on this story for Los Angeles Magazine, also treads the fine journalistic line between fact and conjecture. She devotes considerable attention to the protagonists' inner workings and, though endnotes cite her sources, the reader is left wondering about her apparently extraordinary access to these people. (Apr.) Forecast: Despite its flaws, this has enthusiastic blurbs from Lucian Truscott and Ron Rosenbaum, and should find a ready audience in the Southwest, fed by author appearances in Los Angeles, San Diego and elsewhere in the region.
Reviewed on: 04/01/2001 Release date: 04/01/2001 Genre: Nonfiction