How do I begin reviewing a book professing no real beginning and no logical end? A book that eschews chronology? A book that exercises authorial interruption? I decided, in anticipated homage to the promise of a postmodern historic tale of gold in What Men Call Treasure, to search for information on Victorio Peak (where else but Wikipedia?). I decided to try to ruin any anticipation in hopes that the book’s array of peaks and basins, its ability to tell a story despite plot (I was murdering the plot, after all, by discovering its ending), and its claustrophobic yearning to uncover itself would bury me. In other words, I would start nowhere and hope for the best. I was not disappointed. Go ahead, look up Victorio Peak on Wikipedia: You won’t find it until you search for Doc Noss, the discoverer of the treasure,
because the article is “orphaned,” like lost gold, which adds another sublime, limestone layer over the treasure of Victorio Peak.
The book, nonfiction, relies heavily on fictional techniques for its success. The authors (David Schweidel and Robert Boswell, both fiction writers) understand that they have left their own footprints in the dust of Victorio Peak, tying them forever to the very history they’re trying to unravel. Knowing that makes them participants in, not just observers of, the search, they write themselves into the book as characters. They embrace Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle (which they use as an epithet to chapter 18: “One cannot know with certainty how the process of observation alters what is being observed”). This leads to their use of the most striking fictional technique in the book: historian (author) as omniscient narrator. The characters come alive, not just through what we are told about them, but through their thoughts and particular colorings of the world. Terry Delonas, the book’s main character (besides the authors) and treasure hunter, comes alive first through a scene in a therapist’s office: “The prospect of pursuing the treasure thrilled and daunted him. Outside the window of the therapist’s office, the city’s flickering lights had grown brighter as the neighborhood darkened, a trick of perspective.” This is clearly not a straightforward (hi)story about the search for evanescent gold in Victorio Peak; this is a book about characters, about family histories, about the act of writing as creation and
It is also a mess. But, as Schweidel writes, the “story of the mess compelled me. It seemed as fabulous and elusive as the treasure itself.” Each of the characters in the book has his or her own belief, his or her own story, that swirls around the vortex of a common legend materialized by Doc Noss (who crawled into the caves at Victorio Peak) and his wife, Babe Noss (even the names are fantastic, and just out of range of everyday possibility). There are excellent chapters about the conquistadors and the Apaches of the Southwest (the peak was named after one of these Apache chiefs, who made his last successful stand against the Confederate Army there), about the tales of Doc and his (un)timely demise, about the frustrating interference of the U.S. Army (the peak is part of the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico) and, largely, about the characters that surrounded the most recent push into the mountain (including a dowser), and each adds to the blissful farrago of the treasure hunt.
The book, too, is a meta-narrative about storytelling. Mainstream America has misplaced its appreciation for stories — if they involve gold, stories are not an end in themselves, but a means to an end. That is, stories about gold must lead to tactile riches; anything less is a lie. This book’s truth is, however, not about gold, but a tale (history, fiction, philosophy, and authorial intervention). That is why the book’s incomplete title (“What men call treasure ... the gods call dross”) is so poignant: It is the story, in all its complications, winding paths, claustrophobia, and sometimes frustrating dead ends, that is the true wealth. •