'The Holly' and how things work

Plus: some Western book recs. It's the shortest one yet!

Here is a Book Review™️: The Holly is good. Read The Holly.

Julian Rubinstein’s book takes its title from a now-razed shopping center and community hub in Denver’s Northeast Park Hill neighborhood, where, on September 20, 2013, anti-gang activist Terrance Roberts shot and paralyzed 22-year-old Hasan Jones, a known Bloods member. Above all, The Holly is a single-minded investigation into what happened that day and why, and when it becomes something more — a sweeping narrative history of the last six decades of Black civil-rights activism and American criminal-justice policy, for instance — it never feels like the kind of fluff or authorial affectation that plagues a lot of newsy nonfiction these days. It’s dense and deeply researched because it needed to be. Patiently unraveling the strands of personal, communal and national history that are knotted up in Roberts’ shooting of Jones, Rubinstein traces their origins and ends up with a thoroughly gripping portrait of how power operates in the modern American city.

It says a lot that, in wanting to briefly summarize The Holly here, I’m unsure about how much to give away — that I’m wondering if I should “spoil” history, much of it very recent and lived through by a large community of people. If you’re a Denver resident like me, you may know only the broadest strokes of Roberts’ story, and next to nothing about the explosive claims The Holly makes about the Denver Police Department’s anti-gang unit and some of the Mile High City’s most powerful leaders. The events of the book took place only a few miles, even a few blocks, from the city’s wealthier, whiter neighborhoods, but much of it might as well have happened in another country. Rubinstein calls it “invisible Denver.”

There’s another Denver that’s present throughout the book, the Denver that Terrance Roberts, a former Park Hill Blood who dedicated himself to community activism following his release from prison in 2004, was briefly admitted into, then grew increasingly frustrated by. Invisible isn’t the word for it, since it’s made up of many of the highest-profile people in the city, but neither is it quite out in the open. Call it silent Denver — the quiet networks of the wealthy and well-connected, the Denver of developers and political operatives and white-shoe law firms, the Denver of business luncheons and ballroom panel discussions and black-tie awards galas.

This Denver, as Roberts learned in spearheading efforts redevelop the Holly into a community center and combat gang violence and poverty in Northeast Park Hill, is bright, reassuring, full of promises and open-armed, to a point. It’s ready and willing, with grants and introductions and handshake agreements, to offer support to anyone it believes is aligned with its interests. But cross an invisible line — ask the wrong question, get the wrong attitude, offend the wrong person — and you’ll be out. There won’t be any confrontations or dragged-out arguments; silent Denver is too civil for that. But one day the checks will start drying up, your calls will stopped being returned, and the doors that had once opened for you will stay shut, wordless and impassive. In many ways, the most pivotal moment in The Holly isn’t a shooting or a firebombing or a court verdict — it comes when Roberts, who has launched a successful anti-gang program and masterminded the construction of a Boys and Girls Club but has begun to be ostracized from the city’s establishment for his activism, sends an email to “four of the most powerful people in the redevelopment of the Holly,” asking for help. Only one responds, curtly wishing Roberts luck. Silent Denver is nothing if not polite.

There’s a simple three-word phrase that’s been stuck in my head for the last few years: how things work. These are (for now) the last words ever published by Gawker, taken from a tag that the site applied to stories “revealing the sausage-making, the secret ways that power manifests itself.” For me the phrase has become a kind of mental afterimage, burning faintly in my retinas whenever I see a story about the quiet machinations, the unspoken understandings that make the world go round. As journalists, we try to explain why things are the way they are, to give the public as full a picture of what’s happened as possible, and mostly I think we fail. Most of the time, we’re describing shadow puppets on the wall; every once in a while, if we work hard or get lucky, we can catch a glimpse of one of the hands that’s making them. Every day, there are fewer of us to look in the first place, and more people in the halls of power wielding silence as a weapon. Every day, I worry that more doors are closing — that as loud as things may seem, in the ways that matter they’re quieter than ever.

Where so many fail, The Holly succeeds, though perhaps not completely. Rubinstein sketches the rough outline of a spectacular conspiracy but can’t, by his own admission, fill it all the way in. But if the book leaves the reader in an uncertain and not entirely satisfying place, maybe it’s done its job. A Hollywood ending, with every loose end neatly tied up, all mysteries solved and all villains brought to justice — well, that’s rarely how things work. Besides, in the real world, the most spectacular version of the conspiracy rarely needs to be true for real harm to be done; often, the banal version is enough. The case against Denver that’s proven beyond doubt in The Holly, a case of clueless gentrifiers and self-seeking politicians and back-patting philanthropists and credulous reporters, was certainly enough. Gang violence in the city is surging, and one of its most effective anti-gang activists is an outcast, and the people in charge don’t want to talk about it.

Some book recs!

Reader Gabe asked for a post with some of my favorite Western books and authors, and I hesitated a bit. I’m wary of anything that could turn into an attempt at a Big Definitive List — partly because I’ll overthink the categorization, partly because I don’t want to contribute to canonizing the same ten authors over and over again, but mostly because I don’t feel qualified. I’ve lived in the West for not quite nine years, and haven’t been a thinking, reading adult for much longer than that — my aim with this newsletter is much more to set off and discover great Western writing than to draw on some deep well of knowledge I’ve already amassed.

So anyway, there’s my throat-clearing, and first I’m going to point to the Colorado Sun’s recent list of 50+ books about the West as a great starting point with a lot of the canonical classics and worthy newer picks. What would I add? Fiction-wise, definitely The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2015 cli-fi masterpiece about a near-future American Southwest at war with itself over water rights. I’ve been working my way through Laura Pritchett’s novels, and her debut, Hell’s Bottom, Colorado, is as good a place to start as any. Train Dreams, a Denis Johnson novella, is a sad, lovely story set in the Idaho panhandle in the 1920s. More recently, Emily NemensThe Cactus League is a great Arizona novel, and I’m going to count The River, Peter Heller’s survival tale set in the northern Canadian wilderness. I’m not much for Grey or L’Amour or most of the pulp writers, but Elmore Leonard’s early work proved the genre isn’t completely irredeemable (before he, too, grew out of it). Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is, of course, considered the ultimate, necessary corrective to dime-novel romanticism, though recommending it feels a bit like recommending open-heart surgery.

On the nonfiction side, I have a few go-to picks, starting with The End of the Myth, Greg Grandin’s eye-opening, centuries-spanning history of the American frontier. Our History Is the Future by Nick Estes is a powerful account of the Standing Rock protests in the context of the long Indigenous struggle against dispossession and oppression. Carrie Gibson’s El Norte synthesizes a lot of indispensable history dating back to the days of Spanish conquest in the 16th century. This Land by Christopher Ketcham is a great survey of the battles over public ownership and resource extraction that are being fought all over the modern West. From there it depends a lot on what you’re interested in. Nate Blakeslee’s American Wolf is a great piece of nature writing and primer on the wolf reintroduction issue. Richard Rodriguez’s Days of Obligation is a terrific collection of essays on Mexican-American history and experience. Fire In the Mind by George Johnson is a unique book that has stuck with me, fusing pop-sci writing about the advanced physics being done in New Mexico at places like the Santa Fe Institute and Los Alamos National Laboratory with reflections on the folk traditions and cosmologies of the region’s Indigenous peoples.

But that’s enough from me — tell me what you think some of the best books about the West are. Which Western writers deserve more attention than they get? Which of them are overrated hacks? And what counts as the West, anyway? Reply to this email, comment below or get in touch via Twitter at @litoutwest — and as always, thanks for reading.