What we get in this, his first book, is a brilliant portrait of a place and a people, a millennial’s travelogue written with enviable verve and erudition. The title invites comparison with Hunter S. Thompson, as does the rapid-fire prose, the ear for quirky dialogue, the strangeness of a landscape sore and battered ... Wheeler knows when to play the first-person card of the old New Journalism, and he knows when to back off. He’s very good at scene-setting, which makes him very good at history-telling. It’s clear that Wheeler has thought long and hard about the truth and consequences of the past. It goes without saying that the going gets weird at times ... Wheeler is inventive in his jumping-off points, taking up topics that become doors to something else without hitch or hiccup ... The author carried me along with his eye and his prose, carried me to the people, the places, the sunlight, the history, the pain, the crimes, the oddities, and the grace ... Joshua Wheeler has written a book worth reading more than once, a book that makes me very much want to read his next one.
Joshua Wheeler detours around them all in favor of his native southern New Mexico in the engagingly chatty and seriocomic Acid West ... Wheeler is determined to put 'SNM' on the map on new terms that don't play to stereotypes ... Wheeler is the inheritor of a conflict that's defined the last few generations of American essay writers — they're supposed to speak their passions but also keep their emotions at a distance. It's a hard balance to maintain, and sometimes Wheeler drifts toward glibness or callousness.
Mr. Wheeler does not seem especially charmed by the strangeness of his corner of the country...the essays in Acid West feel oppressed by the unresolved childhood resentments of a native. The cynicism and verbosity of the writing—some of the footnotes are nearly as long as the essays themselves—suggest an author trying to work out personal issues on the page. The material is rich but Mr. Wheeler hasn’t yet found his way on the level of craft. Excess is one thing the desert doesn’t abide.
There is no question Wheeler is smart. He is up to taking on New Mexico’s once grand hopes for success — and their desiccated remains today — on a prominent stage ... But by the rules of assured command of a chosen form, Wheeler’s prolixity sometimes seems the product of someone who doesn’t quite trust himself. So he says more about more, occasionally repeating it for emphasis. He’s that friend at the bar, admittedly astute and entertaining, who a few beers into the evening is manically rafting the endless rapids of his own stream of consciousness ... Acid West aims to make the point that something about the clarity of its air and the view it permits to galaxies beyond ours, or its dry sands, or the people who can take it and make it there, clarifies something both simple and complex about America: it’s messed up. But in some really interesting ways. Let Joshua Wheeler show you just how much.
Southern New Mexico is Joshua Wheeler’s home terrain, and Acid West is his phenomenal ode to it ... Acid West does not form a succinct survey of a boundary-delineated region. The essays sprawl, enveloping religion, philosophy, history, science, and pop culture in a way that complicates things as seemingly simple as human ears ... Throughout the essays, there is a struggle for deeper understanding — of an indifferent region, yes, but also of the indifferent forces at play regardless of locale: technology, gravity, mortality ... This is Wheeler’s debut collection, and hopefully, the first of many in which that ache for profundity gives readers so much to reflect on.
Acid West executes the delicate balancing act between staying rooted in a single specific space and time while making statements that are more general and universal ... Acid West is uneven. Some of its essays, such as 'Children of the Gadget,' are brilliant, perspicacious and speak to the core of what it means to be a person living in the contemporary United States, while others, like 'Things Most Surely Believed,' are aspiring—you can see the work on the page as well as the statement that Wheeler wishes to make—to such lofty heights but are only ever vapid and vacuous. The highs in the book, which are mostly concentrated in the first half of the collection, are so grand and successful that a reader will tolerate those essays that cannot quite make the standard ... His narrative voice is funny and approachable throughout, which keeps the book lively and light even while demonstrating Wheeler’s intelligence. Wheeler loves neologism and coins several throughout the collection. His prose is superb; unlike most essay collections, where the flow lags at time because the writer is trying too hard to be artful, Acid West stays engaging and Wheeler’s confidence in his wordsmithing never wanes. Wheeler is artful with such nonchalance that he can focus his writing on crafting imagery and constructing metaphors like those in the previous paragraph ... Acid West is entertaining, diverse in subject and approach and just plain fun to read, even though the essays are uneven in quality. It could also credibly populate a university-level American Studies syllabus, but the erudition it so obviously exudes is nicely balanced by Wheeler’s prose so that the book is never unapproachable or intimidating, either.
Strangeness, wordplay, and loss saturate Wheeler’s debut essay collection, launched from southern New Mexico but aimed at the creaky mythology of American progress ... Wheeler visits a UFO festival, investigates the final days of a condemned criminal, and discovers a utopian asylum. Wheeler also introduces us to his family: proud, decadent, dying. If his hallucinogenic prose sometimes resembles the great twentieth-century gonzos, so does his moral outrage and his yearning for authenticity.
This unwieldy, sometimes inspired essay collection renders the banal strange and the strange even stranger ... His writing is mesmerizing ... But he can also get lost in his attempts at profundity, as when the cameras attached to the suit to capture the freefaller’s point of view ... Most interesting is how Wheeler challenges conventions of the personal essay with unexpected stylistic devices, like the onomatopoeic crack of the baseball bat to punctuate shifting streams of consciousness in the essay about baseball, or breaking the essay about his ailing grandmother attaching her shoes to her feet using rubber bands into recursive vignettes in order to show how memory revises and edits itself with each remembrance. The collection is ponderous and self-important on the whole, but punctuated by moments of lyrical insight.
His account of digging ditches in the caliche soil to repair water lines is a masterpiece of proletarian wistfulness, calculated to make the reader sweat, and his accompanying notion that the water in those lines is haunted is a provocative one for any desert dweller. Still, the book runs much too long, and some of the essays are set pieces that don’t do much: The author’s take on the nuclear legacy of the region is unoriginal, and his foray across the line into Ciudad Juárez pales in comparison to the work of the late Charles Bowden. In need of trimming and occasional rethinking but with much promise as well.