By Deanne Stillman
Summer is here and so too reading lists of the season. Generally these are compiled by book critics, magazine editors and writers, many of whom are offering their recommendations of new and classic books that have influenced their imaginations, illuminated the human condition or made them laugh out loud. But it’s not often that we learn of books that have motivated people to act, beyond going on a diet, and it’s even more out of the ordinary to hear of three such books at the same time—and how they each played a role in the same public event.
Already a fan of one, I learned of these books and their collective impact by way of individuals involved in a modern manhunt. Together, the books comprise their own unlikely summer reading list; the manhunt happened in August 2003 and it was while I was writing about it, first for Rolling Stone and more recently in my new book “Desert Reckoning,” that they came to the fore as a trio. Since then I’ve read and reread these works to learn more about the men who loved them. Two of the men were dead when I found out about the impact of each book in their lives, so the tales therein became that much more important in helping me understand these figures.
The first book on this unlikely summer list is “This Present Darkness” by Frank Peretti. It’s a Christian thriller about a preacher and reporter who join up to combat evil forces that threaten to overtake a small town. Published in 1986, it’s an ongoing megaseller and was also adapted recently as a Broadway musical called “Dark.” I found out about it when I met reporter Connie Mavrolas and Pastor John Wodetzki, friends of the late Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputy Stephen Sorensen, whose story I tell in my book. Along with Sorensen, Mavrolas and Wodetzki had formed an accidental trio who had come together in their mutual concern for Lake Los Angeles, the Antelope Valley town where they lived and worked. In their view, it had been overtaken by the dark side, and they believed that their crusade mirrored what was going on in “This Present Darkness.” When the battle reached a fever pitch, the book emboldened them. With Sorensen leading the way, they felt as if they were carrying a cross of goodness across a parched land of demons. Weeks after Sorensen was killed and the man who killed him died in a giant conflagration during the final siege of the manhunt, Mavrolas and Wodetzki recalled a passage from Peretti’s book in which the besieged town was saved by a heavenly fire—a blaze of stars that vanquished evil and swept the place clean.
The man who cut Sorensen’s life short was Donald Kueck, a dedicated hermit who lived near Lake Los Angeles in a remote outpost called Llano. His story also figures prominently in my book. Kueck had acquired an extensive library during the years that he lived there, including such diverse offerings as “Passages” by Gail Sheehy and a deluxe anniversary edition of Gun Digest. Often he would sit in an old La-Z-Boy that faced the Three Sisters Buttes, ponder the utopia for one that he had assembled from desert flotsam and jetsam, and read and plan. Among his collection, there was one book that he especially favored; this was “Reunions,” a popular work by Dr. Raymond Moody about how to contact the dead. In his final months, Kueck had been trying to reach his son Jello, who had died of a heroin overdose in the old Palace Theatre in downtown Los Angeles before it was refurbished. We do not know whether the attempt was successful, but according to his friends, it was his desire to be with his son that led to the strange and violent incident that took a deputy to the grave—and a week later, Kueck himself, after he had dug his own burial plot on his land.
Finally, a third book that emerged from this manhunt was “The Lonesome Gods” by Louis L’Amour. Along with the entire L’Amour oeuvre, this work led Bruce Chase to join the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. As a young boy, Chase had played cowboys and Indians in the Virginia woods. He also read L’Amour, and one day followed the footsteps of the Sackett brothers, the L’Amour characters who headed west and became lawmen. Years later, he found himself on the SWAT team that participated in the hunt for Kueck. Months after it was over, we talked about L’Amour and he unpacked his collection of books by the master, stored in cartons in his garage. He was excited to have rediscovered his favorite, “The Lonesome Gods.” I understood the feeling; I too was a big fan of this book—perhaps L’Amour’s greatest—and we marveled at the parallels between the story it told and the weeklong manhunt for Kueck. It’s a gripping tale of good and evil and takes place in the California desert just beyond reach of Los Angeles. The story provides context for never-ending battles, placing men in pursuit of outlaws in a venerated line. “They were loyal to the last fiber of their being,” L’Amour wrote, “and strong with the knowledge that … there must be law.” But behind it all, there were higher forces, gods who were ignored and disrespected in the desert wastes, waiting for man to come to his senses.
And so there we have our summer reading list, composed of books with echoes that are loud and clear. Knowing of their impact may help to dispel a fashionable notion that books no longer matter. Now it’s time for full disclosure: I include myself among the ranks of those whose lives were transformed by books. Actually, make that a poem. I love the desert and it had me at “Eldorado,” the Edgar Allan Poe lyric that my father read to me when I was a little girl in Ohio. I came west because of it, and at this point in my life, one thing is very clear: In the beginning was the Word and, well, I’ll just leave it at that.