THE KINGDOM IN THE COUNTRY by James Conaway (Houghton Mifflin: $17.95; 225 pp.).
At one point in his six-month van ride through the West, author James Conaway was confronted by a radical environmentalist who asked, "What's the slant of your book?" Conaway gave the reflexive journalistic answer that it had no slant, to which his inquisitor replied with an obscenity.
Conaway, a Washingtonian, came West with "a slant." It is one that is fairly prevalent on the other coast; and that is that almost everything between the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains is skewered and a bit crazy.
Conaway's subjects are not as grotesque as the people who inhabited photographer Richard Avedon's stark vision of the West of two years ago, the book and traveling museum exhibit "In the American West." Those unsuspecting individuals were posed against a merciless blank background.
The difference between Avedon's visual exploitation--and the West is no stranger to exploitation by Easterners--and Conaway's prose is that the author places his people up against the backdrop of the public lands in the West.
Superimposed against the mountains, deserts, forests, rivers, and range lands of the West, his federal land managers and users and their ways of life begin to take on a sweaty reality, such as in the description of coffee being "the social glue of the West." Anyone who has been invited to sit down and talk over his fifth cup of weak coffee in a morning knows the truth of that description.
Then Conaway loses reality and replaces it with stereotypes. There is the woman Bureau of Land Management district manager with "luminous red hair and a stellar smile--genetic imperatives among Southern California women, it seemed." You can see her up against Avedon's blank background, but not in the desert that she administered.
The value of the book is in its quick, contemporary tour of the varied activities and people who use or administer the vast bulk of land in the West. But a quick tour brings shallow results; unless the observer has an unusual eye, or a new slant.