While reading Greg Zeigler’s new novel, “The Straw That Broke,” I kept thinking of Roman Polanski’s film “Chinatown” and Marc Reisner’s classic tome “Cadillac Desert” — both about water politics in the West and the corruptive, criminal elements that take hold when huge sums of money are at stake.
The future of our region will be shaped by availability of fresh water.
Think in particular of Las Vegas, the growing gambling metropolis that, according to the laws of nature, has no reason to exist in the middle of a scorching desert and yet, when it comes to water, is built upon the delusion of limitlessness.
Sometimes satire and farce become the only entry points for society to consider fundamental truths that are not being confronted through the dystopia of American politics. God knows, given Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead’s struggles to accept the science of climate change and evolution, this state is a case in point.
“The Straw That Broke,” a brutal romp that Zeigler describes as “an environmental thriller,” fits the description. A book that’s been a work in progress for 10 years, it’s a solid debut novel rooted in the eco-zeitgeist of our time. Dan Bloom calls it ''a 'cli fi' novel that should be on everyone's reading list.'' Bloom coined the term cli fi to stand for climate fiction novels a la the sci fi genre.
Jackson Hole, after all, is positioned at the center of a plot about water rustling. Zeigler, a longtime resident of the valley, knows well the human terrain and physical topography of the province. A onetime NOLS instructor, former head of the Teton Science Schools and a devoted conservationist, he weaves an intriguing narrative and spares no social group from a jab.
Susan Brand, his Jackson cop heroine, is the antithesis of the Coen Brothers’ Marge Gunderson in “Fargo.” A single mother who has a knack for doing solid detective work, she demonstrates her physical toughness by proudly bench-pressing her body weight at the gym.
Brand is the daughter of an Indian reservation preacher, a blond head-turner constantly ogled by the good men of this community. And yet she has a dangerous air. On a couple of occasions her carelessness with a gun resulted in accidental shootings.
Brand’s gumshoe partner, Jake Goddard, is a Utah private eye who is fending off a gambling addiction and whose vain self-awareness sets off sexual sparks.
Another memorable protagonist is Rank Moody, who, on behalf of the Wise Use movement, gathers intelligence on eco-extremists but for the right price turns double agent.
Then there is the colorful supporting cast: the ultra-flaky scientific researcher Noah Skutches, now well past his prime as a lothario of young idealistic environmental activists wanting to save the world; the tribe of counterculture hippies that makes an annual pilgrimage to “The Howl,” Zeigler’s lampoon of Burning Man; and a string of others modeled after actual living and breathing Jackson Hole citizens.
It’s fitting that Zeigler’s book carries a ringing endorsement from Jackson Hole novelist and screenplay writer Tim Sandlin, who has had several of his books turned into big-screen movies. “Zeigler predicts our future,” Sandlin writes. “A story to be savored.”
Whacky characters abound, not unlike the kind flowing through Sandlin’s fictional town of GroVont. In what surely will delight many readers, Zeigler’s plot moves between well-known Jackson Hole place names and across Teton Pass into Idaho.
The action angles southward into the deserts of Utah, Nevada’s Great Basin and the Mojave in the rugged canyon country around Lake Mead, where greedy developers have their eyes on the Colorado River.
“The Straw That Broke” plunges dramatically into the West’s dire reality, which is that without water, civilization as currently manifested is going to be in real trouble.
“The Straw That Broke” establishes Zeigler as a writer to watch and lays a fine foundation for his characters to return in future novels.