On the western edge of the Mojave Desert you’ll find a ghost town – or the traces of one, really, because there isn’t much left to see. There’s a ring of chimneys rising up Stonehenge-like from the alluvial plain, some meandering stone walls, the crumbling façade of a building. The rest of the town was swallowed by the desert long ago. Today there are ruins, easy to miss.
In the historical topography of the southwestern United States, this is all that remains of the Llano Del Rio Colony, an experiment in utopian socialist living that opened to public membership on May Day of 1914. For a few exciting years Llano Del Rio thrived, involving hundreds of “colonists,” small-scale agricultural and industrial production, and a fairly complex (if not always cooperative) system of shared labor. But by 1918 scarce water resources and internal conflict undermined the project and the colony went bankrupt, scattering its colonists to search for utopia on other horizons.
The abandoned Llano Del Rio is a meaningful space in the world of Jim Miller’s novel Flash because it is weighted with so many of the book’s main concerns: how we are alienated from the past while surrounded by its artifacts in the present, how we celebrate the visions of those who struggled for a better society while recognizing the reality of their defeat. It’s a heavy place to be if you’re a radical with a sense of history, which well describes Jack Wilson, the narrator of Flash. Jack, a journalist, finds himself in Llano Del Rio one evening with the son he rarely sees, sitting atop the remains of this dead socialist dream, “mingling with unnamed ghosts and pondering the ruins of the perfect future” (122).
There’s one ghost on his mind, though, that does indeed have a name: Bobby Flash, a “dishwasher, harvest stiff, bricklayer, etc.,” “Member I.W.W.,” and “a bad man,” according to the 1912 wanted poster Jack discovered in a San Diego library (1). Flash was “a bad man,” Jack supposes, because he fought for that vision of a perfect future, participating in the Magónista revolt in Tijuana and the San Diego Free Speech Fights, spending time in Llano Del Rio, and agitating with the Industrial Workers of the World for the idea that “there’s nobody who doesn’t deserve a piece of the pie” (150). Most of the novel is devoted to Jack’s search to discover more about Bobby Flash and his Wobbly comrades—“revolutionaries, outlaws, political prisoners, martyrs, heroes, common men, lost to history”—and Jack moves from archive to archive, “tracing the distant threads of their lives, chasing their ghosts across time” (82). He sifts through brittle newspaper clippings and yellowing photographs, manuscripts that were never published and letters that were never meant to be, and gradually develops some understanding of Bobby Flash and the time in which he lived.
The novel presents these artifacts as a sort of accumulation of narratives: Jack’s contemporary first-person account is frequently interrupted by his interpretation of sources or “extracts” from the sources themselves, sometimes at great length. We hear Bobby Flash or his comrade Gus Blanco (a “bronco buster and cow puncher”) or his feminist lover Molly in their own voices from across forgotten decades. But it is not simply a matter of hearing (or reading): Jack has to interpret these narratives, compare them to each other, and consider their inconsistencies and posthumous alterations.
History, the novel suggests, is not about uncovering “what happened” in the past but involves the construction of knowledge in the present, derived from information that is transmitted to us from the past in a complicated and profoundly dialectical fashion. In other words, history is a noisy (and contingent) scene, and Miller gives us a sense of this in the way he gathers up multiple created narratives and displays them in the process of their becoming.
Likewise, we begin to feel, as Jack does, that we must learn to see the present as history. Miller’s writing here is particularly incisive, and rather than merely provide a snapshot view he lays bare the social relations underpinning life in twenty-first century capitalism. (Lukács, following Engels, drew this distinction regarding Zola [the superficial snapshot] and Balzac [the dynamic social relations]—despite their progressive or reactionary politics, respectively.) As he investigates the life of Bobby Flash, Jack moves through a world that is bound up in—and the product of—the very same class struggle Flash encountered in a previous era. It’s a world populated by alienated working stiffs: in “the dirty white light” of a train car Jack sees “the tired, after-work faces of cashiers, janitors, secretaries, security, and the homeless men” (14), evoking the train cars once ridden by Bobby Flash and likewise packed with weary proles. Human interaction in the novel, especially between strangers, tends to be mediated by the commodity form—people meet when money is exchanged; they experience each other through the totalizing logic of the market.
But Jack’s world is also one of conflict: as a journalist he reports on exploited maquiladora workers and the pollution of their neighborhood, the repression of a workers rights organization, the suicide of a solider just back from Iraq, the fight over municipal budget cuts and layoffs. And when he recalls his own experiences in the wage-system, he doesn’t simply list the shitty jobs he’s had but evokes all the messiness of how the basic antagonism between capital and labor manifests itself in lived experience. There’s the sweatshop holding undocumented immigrants in virtual slavery, racial tensions between competing workers, the casual use of hard drugs to increase speed on the job, the urge to slack off and steal minutes from the boss’s clock, the smashed attempt to form a union.
So while there’s a clear tendency toward atomization and conflict in the social world of the novel, there’s also a counter-tendency toward community building and the re-creation of social bonds. Some examples of this, like the legions of Raiders fans Jack joins at a game or the deadheads he meets staggering along behind Jerry Garcia and co., are problematic in the sense that they involve rituals of mass consumption, sub-cultures formed through the enjoyment of commodified spectacle. (And yet the novel insists that the hippie deadhead sub-culture, just like the SoCal punk scene, contains progressive political content because it represents “people trying to imagine some space ‘outside,’” presumably “outside” of mass culture ).
Elsewhere, Jack encounters more conscious efforts to form alternative communities, like the “Thrasher Collective” hiding out in the famous off-the-grid, squatter haven of Slab City: a “pack of scrawny teenage runaways … punk kids who had met online and decided to start a commune” (91). The Thrasher Collective has a declared, anti-capitalist vision (and the manifesto to prove it), but they seem dangerously precarious, and are only one social formation in the larger—and much more complex—Slab City. As one resident puts it:
There’s a bunch of well-intended do-gooders that want to save us from ourselves; there’s a bunch of stupid rednecks who just want to drink and raise hell and trash the place; there’s some lonely old folks escaping the winters; there’s a patch of hippies who keep to themselves and get stoned all day; there’s the ‘leave me the fuck alone crowd’; there are some bible thumpers; there are some real piece of shit criminals hiding out from the law; there are folks that live on the road; there are migrants (92).
In other words, Slab City is in many ways a reflection—or perhaps a symptom—of the broader society from which it is an attempt to disengage. But this particular resident still insists that Slab City is “something special . . . [i]t’s freedom but it’s folks taking care of each other too” (92), and the novel seems to agree. It’s not quite utopia but perhaps a step in that direction. And it foreshadows where Jack ends up by the end of the novel after losing his job: taking his son to Northern California and joining a commune himself, which he lightheartedly but far from sarcastically calls “utopia” (193).
This is where we come to the political heart of Jim Miller’s Flash. On the one hand, the novel develops a sense of continuity in its depiction of life under capitalism during the era of Bobby Flash and our own twenty-first century moment. The details may change but you have the same class forces shaping the same class struggle: Jack can’t “help but think of the parallels between the beginning of the last century and this one: the economic and political polarization, the anger at ‘the bosses’ as the Wobblies used to say” (33).
But on the other hand, the question of how to engage in that class struggle—what to do with that anger—has changed greatly since 1912. As Bobby Flash puts it, in his time “you pushed back and you pushed the right fellows. . . . We were there to go after the bosses and, eventually, end their game completely” (34). He and the I.W.W. appealed to workers with “belly philosophy”—“why should the hard workers get slop while the boss is getting porkchops?” (33)—and translated it into direct action. They challenged the power of capital where it lived, so to speak: on the shop floor, in the mines, in the far-flung towns where workers gathered and in the boxcars that carried them around the industrial arteries of the nation. They were fighters.
Jack doesn’t see that same resistance in early twenty-first century United States: “people weren’t in the streets, at least not yet. People didn’t know who to shoot” (33). There is political struggle, no doubt, but also a pervasive sense of disorientation and even resignation. Jack himself, while usually well orientated (politically), displays a weary cynicism. He spends the novel searching for a sort of radical authenticity and finds it in the romanticized figure of Bobby Flash—but the militant, popular movement of which Flash was a part is today mostly afterimage, preserved in memory and in the vaults of dusty archives.
Which brings us back to Llano Del Rio, or, more specifically, the radical project that it represents. This collective space—like Jack’s Northern California commune and to some extent Slab City—is implicitly an alternative to the I.W.W. model of direct action. It poses the question of whether it is better or preferable to try and “delink” from the power structure in the hope of building new, more egalitarian social relations; or whether it is better to attack the power structure head-on by organizing opposition from within, principally at the point of production. For Flash, these two options were not mutually exclusive, but different aspects of a single strategy. For Jack, however, opting-out of the system to any extent possible seems like the only option, as the novel portrays it. So he packs his bags, reunites with his son, and heads north on highway 101.
It’s not my aim here to comment on whether building collective spaces outside of and in opposition to the regime of capital in a decidedly non-revolutionary moment like ours is a worthwhile strategy (or even really possible). And I’m not suggesting that the novel champions this sort of strategy over mass organizing and direct action—Miller is clear about the uncertainties faced by those attempting to form collective communities “outside” of the power structure, and he doesn’t fetishize the examples he presents.
But still, there’s a shadow cast over the ending of the novel, and one that I suspect was not intended. Jack and his son arrive at the commune, join his old friend Shane, drink a beer and toast to their new home in “utopia,” clearly unsure of what’s to come but convinced it is “going to be a hell of a time” (193). In a way he’s inhabiting (or performing) the one aspect of Bobby Flash’s life that is still available to him—the militant labor movement of the early twentieth century may be hibernating (if not extinct), but he can still head off into the wilderness and join a commune.
And so it’s hard not to think of Llano Del Rio—once the image of a hoped-for world to come, now abandoned to the desert and increasingly lost among the detritus of history. Is Jack simply repeating Llano Del Rio with his commune in Northern California? Without the direct, radical project so well embodied by the I.W.W.—“to go after the bosses and, eventually, end their game completely”—is he destined to become another nameless ghost haunting the ruins of another perfect future? And what does this mean for the rest of us, when more often than not we seek the musty air of history to avoid suffocating here, in our ruinous present?
Flash does not attempt to answer these questions (and in fact provokes many others), but it brings them to the surface and invites us to approach, ask a few more, and look a little deeper into all those preceding historical moments that weigh like a nightmare on our own.
SCOTT BORCHERT can be reached at: email@example.com