BY DAVID DUHR
Authors: Robert Boswell and David Schweidel
Cinco Puntos Press, 2008
Best ebook deal: Unavailable
We all know the traditional arc of a story: beginning, middle, end; goal, obstacles in pursuit of goal, attainment of goal; boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.
Same goes for any good treasure story. Boy discovers treasure map, boy seeks treasure, boy finds treasure.
The problem that Robert Boswell and David Schweidel had to wrestle with during the fourteen years it took to write What Men Call Treasure was this: how do you successfully tell a true story about buried treasure that doesn’t end with boy finding treasure?
Boswell and Schweidel are both fiction writers, so their answer is no real surprise: they would write a “postmodern treasure story,” a metafictional nonfiction book complete with an omniscient narrator, authorial intervention, very little sense of chronology, and a story with no ending that, in its final chapter, gives us five different endings, culminating in a paragraph that opens, “The story ends when we forget it—or the story goes on.”
What Men Call Treasure is like a treasure hunt in its own right, a maze of underground shafts leading to various caverns, each containing a segment of the storyline: the Watergate hearings, Apaches on the warpath, the Iran-Contra affair, Conquistadors and Aztecs, Unsolved Mysteries, Lyndon B. Johnson, and, at its center, a boy who grew up listening to his grandmother’s wild tales of gold.
Terry Delonas, a gay Jehovah’s Witness with AIDS, is the grandson of Ova “Babe” Noss. Babe’s first husband, Milton “Doc” Noss, claims to have found the treasure at Victorio Peak. In 1937, Doc supposedly found a shaft leading to a cavern filled with jewelry, Spanish armor, piles of human bones, and an estimated 16,000 gold bars. He took Babe to the mountain, so the story goes, and together they tried to widen the shaft by exploding dynamite. The shaft collapsed instead. Separated from his treasure, Doc spent the rest of his life trying to find another way in, but was shot dead by a Texas oilman before he ever got back inside Victorio Peak.
Sounds like fiction, doesn’t it? Robert Boswell agrees.
Boswell and Schweidel each attach their name to certain chapters in the book, chapters in which they detail their involvement in the story—how the two of them met, how they got together with Terry Delonas, their own visits to the Peak. It becomes quite obvious that their opinions differ as to the existence of Doc’s treasure.
The mystery … will linger. The path of critical thought led me to the edge of reasonable doubt, but not beyond. I clung to the grain-of-truth theory. Boz (Boswell) was more skeptical. He believed that Victorio Peak never held any treasure.
… Terry was doomed to fail. The mountain of his imagination has at its base a cunning con man’s fable, and no amount of work or faith or money can make it true.
Most of the book follows Terry Delonas’ battles for permission to access the peak, as well as his subsequent expeditions to find Doc’s shaft, but we know from the start that he never succeeds. Boy does not find treasure—instead, boy is kicked off mountain by U.S. Army and sent to bed without supper. As Boswell writes, “The ultimate postmodern treasure story has no treasure, of course; only advertisements for itself.” Those who can’t survive without their closure should not expect to be satisfied with What Men Call Treasure.
Really, this is a nonfiction book for fiction lovers. I picked it up mostly because I am an unabashed Robert Boswell fan, and I didn’t like the thought of there being a Boswell title that I had not read. I didn’t expect to really get into the story—in fact, the Victorio Peak saga never did capture my imagination—but the methods Boswell and Schweidel use to relate Terry Delonas’ tale had me on the edge of my seat. You don’t have to be a treasure hunter to enjoy this book. You just have to appreciate fresh narrative technique and two fiction writers daring enough to tackle a true story that has no beginning and no end.
Further reading: Robert Boswell has written five novels (including Crooked Hearts and Mystery Ride), two nonfiction books (the other being The Half-Known World, an entertaining book about writing), and two story collections, including Living to Be 100, probably the finest on my shelves. Check back soon for a review of his new release, The Heydey of the Insensitive Bastards.
David Schweidel is responsible for the novel Confidence of the Heart, winner of the Milkweed Nation Fiction Prize for 1995.
Also check out this public TV vignette about the making of the book, including interviews with Boswell, Schweidel, and Terry Delonas.