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TWENTYNINE PALMS A True Story of Murder, Marines, and the Mojave By Deanne Stillman; William Morrow: 278 pp., $24

June 03, 2001|BARRY SIEGEL | Barry Siegel is the author of "Actual Innocence" and "The Perfect Witness." He is a national correspondent for The Times

Of late, true crime has fallen into disrepute as a literary genre, yet at its best this form provides something invaluable: a window into an unfamiliar world. Sudden deaths and heated murder trials give us more than a vicarious glimpse of violence. They give us the opportunity to behold people and places and ways of life that otherwise might remain hidden or purposefully ignored.

That's precisely what Deanne Stillman offers in her first book, developed from a story she wrote for Los Angeles Magazine. More than the chronicle of a vicious double rape and murder, "Twentynine Palms" is a passport into the vast, stark, lost heart of the Mojave Desert. Here is the end of the line for those who have failed elsewhere or have had people and places ceaselessly fail on them. The town of Twentynine Palms, Stillman explains in typically evocative language, "is a way station for latter-day blackguards, exiles and refugees--people between minimum-wage jobs, parolees who are not wanted elsewhere, gang members looking for new turf, prospectors who subscribe to Buried Treasure magazine, all-night blackjack players, bikers, hikers, people who talk in tongues, retirees, asthmatics, methamphetamine chefs, welfare mothers, runaway kids, people who are stranded ...."

Into this world comes Debie McMaster, a single mother with three young children, dragging a resume that includes an abusive father and husband, an alcoholic mother and grandmother, two divorces, a few dozen address changes and a long-running bond with a band of Hells Angels. It was around the time she was holed up in a Motel 6 in Folsom, tending bar and dealing speed and following the "new man in her life"--a biker named Monster who was bouncing among penitentiaries because of an armed robbery--that McMaster decided she needed to make a fundamental change. Someone told her of a place "where no one could bother her, where she could start over like a baby."

For Debie, Twentynine Palms was the land of opportunity. Arriving at the edge of town, she "stopped her beat-up Chevy pickup, rolled down the window, surveyed the land, and burst into tears. She had been on the way to Twentynine Palms for years, generations it seemed, and now she was home .... She lit up, took a nice, long drag, and sighed the deep sweet sigh of resignation as once again, she surveyed their future. There was nothing here, the slate was blank: home at last."

Echoes of Joan Didion are unavoidable in this milieu, yet Stillman's desert is a far more obviously desperate arena than is the Inland Empire of "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream." Two years after arriving in the Mojave, Debie's old "running mates" in the Hell's Angels persuade her to sell some meth, which leads to a police raid of her home, during which a cop holds a gun to the head of Debie's young daughter Mandi, who later proceeds to proudly retail an embellished version of the raid "to impress friends in a circle where defiance was the coin of the realm." By the time Mandi is 14, she--"like many girls on the edge of nowhere"--is experimenting with sex and hanging with members of two gangs, the Watergate Crips and the Park Village Crips. She is also making the acquaintance of the young men posted at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, the largest Marine base in the world, one that accounts for half of Twentynine Palm's population--including the man who will murder 15-year-old Mandi and her 20-year-old friend, Rosalie Ortega. This comes after a night of frustrated partying in which the Marine fails to "get lucky" so vents his rage, something he'd done before without penalty or such fatal results.

Stillman weaves her multi-strand tale with uncommon skill, moving from past to present, from the crime to the courtroom, as she deftly circles around characters and events, returning and deepening and expanding. She sees that her true story is not of a crime but of a culture, or rather of a collision between cultures. Outcasts living in the shadow of a military base--a base committed to a code of silence about the violent deeds of its enlisted men--make for a ripe and vulnerable brew.

Yet were Mandi and Rosalie's deaths inevitable? It sometimes seems so in Stillman's account. Blame rests on the Mojave and the Marines, not on drug-dealing parents who let their children roam freely in a desolate, dangerous world. On Mandi's last night alive, she bumps into her mother at midnight at a fast-food mini-mart and collects only a hug and money for cigarettes. Here Stillman's obvious identification with her subjects--and need for a sympathetic protagonist--becomes as much a problem as a valuable agent of insight. She has difficulty achieving the delicate balance between empathy and detachment, compassion and cool-eyed assessment. Others less entwined might think Mandi the victim of neglect as much as an empty desert and a code of silence.

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