REVIEW – “Quench Your Thirst With Salt,” Utah native Nicole Walker’s award winning collection of essays, assails the reader with brutally honest musings on family, sex, overconsumption, exploitation and physical science. The properties of water, physics and insatiable human desire interconnect in this distinctive compilation.
Walker grew up in the Salt Lake area; she earned her doctoral degree from the University of Utah and is currently a professor at Northern Arizona University. Lovers of literature and the unique topography of the Salt Lake region need this collection on their bookshelf next to Wendell Berry, although her narrative style stings with uninhibited description that would make Wendell blush.
Walker exposes her most personal relationships — particularly with her heavy-drinking, highly educated father — with humor and unflinching honesty. In alternating essays, she explains the natural science of watershed in the inner mountain west and the historic water use policies.
“In the mix of acting and being acted upon,” Walker reminds the reader, “it’s impossible to even distinguish what is natural and what is a perversion of that nature.”
These declarative statements can leave the reader doing a double take, wondering if she was referring to a family member, a dam, or a process of oil extraction.
Even with these complexities, Walker informs and entertains with little pretension or strain. Her language is often simple in the most complex passages. She explains microbiology and geothermal dynamics with the same ease as she describes shinnying down the eaves for a midnight escape to meet a boyfriend. More notably, she ties together such acts of human behavior and principals of science as relevant, even simultaneous, in a most intricate way. Kentucky bluegrass in the Great Salt Lake valley is just as out of place as a mustard stain in the corner of her father’s mouth.
In “Quench,” themes develop on many levels. Walker re-examines boundaries: boundaries that should exist but don’t; boundaries that don’t exist but should. Respectively, Mormon elders could have more, and the flow of rivers should have less. Likewise, she re-examines promises as manmade phenomena that are rarely kept, although it seems to defy a natural course.
“Some things fulfill their promises,” she wrote, “like when water returns a canyon to its originally scheduled permanence.”
Walker has a taste for irony, humor and juxtaposition. As well she should. Her father was a geologist whose hankering for booze and Vegas strip clubs frequently got the best of him. However, he had rules about when salt was to be applied at the dinner table. Both parents were atheists who enjoyed drinking, but chose to raise their kids in the Mecca of Mormonism: Salt Lake City.
“Growing up,” Walker explains, “we lived behind a mortuary, a cemetery, and a Mormon Church. The prospect of death seemed to follow us throughout suburbia.”
At times, these wide ranging essays and informational excerpts seem fragmented, though never quite disconnected. There is a heaviness of content that warrants putting the book down to mentally digest a given chapter, or even an essay within a chapter. By design, “Quench” does not read as one continuous narrative, which makes it a challenge. But just as it warrants putting down, it warrants picking back up.
Walker reveals what people are made of just as she examines the construction of societies, irrigation systems, essays and sentences. This may be a dominant motif, that we are all made of desire and restraint, but in varying proportions. Among the most interesting characters is Walker’s grandfather, whom she credits for her love of a good sentence. Here, Walker reflects on his demise:
… all he came for was a pure drink and he couldn’t have known that the pure drink he was looking for was the poison that would kill him, one way or the other.
I strongly recommend you read about where he was going and from whence he came.
Finally, a fair warning: I could not resist a personal reaction to this collection of essays, and you won’t be able to either. It’s too honest, intimate, fearless. So here’s my true thesis: Reading “Quench Your Thirst With Salt” made me salivate for just one more sip of whiskey and count my blessings I haven’t had one in almost two-and-a-half years. It took me a lifetime of drinking — between the ages of 12 and 40 — to realize alcohol only made me thirst for more of the same with every sip and chug.
Walker’s relatively short book — a fearless exposition of her most intimate relationships, of suppressed nature, of desire that sustains and destroys — may have you asking yourself, as I did, a soul-searching question:
Have you made your peace with thirst?
Submitted by Doug McGlothlin
3440 N Monte Vista
Flagstaff, AZ 86004
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