In Hari Kunzru’s dazzling new novel, a desert is the setting, hero and villain. It isn’t the first time this landform has played such a starring role. Throughout history, deserts have had a powerful grip on the human imagination: Jesus walked one for 40 nights. Moses for 40 years. Muhammad spent his boyhood in the sand, among Bedouins. Even Coyote, the trickster god of Native American lore, darted nimbly from cactus to cactus. A desert is where bombs go up and UFOs come down, where mirages, misadventures and miracles unfold. It is siren and slayer, everything and nothing. “The desert,” wrote Balzac, “is God without men.”
Kunzru’s “Gods Without Men” is a great, sprawling narrative, as vast as the canvas on which it is written. In it, half a dozen stories play out on the gaping expanse of the Mojave Desert, where a miscellany of lost souls seeks salvation in the shadow of a three-fingered rock formation.
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