Tag Archives: Sunset Magazine

The Water Knife (A Book Review)


[amazon template=image&asin=080417153X]I first heard of the novel The Water Knife (set in the American Southwest, primarily in Phoenix, AZ from a blurb in Sunset magazine (http://www.sunset.com/). The description intrigued me, and I wanted to read the book. Thanks to a kind BookMooch (http://bookmooch.com/) member, I had my chance.

In author Paolo Bacigalupi’s Phoenix, water is precious and scarce, and society is divided according to who has it and who doesn’t. The rich have water, of course, The rich live in lavish “arcologies” where all waste water is sceientifically filtered clean and reused. The rich have plenty of water to drink, can bathe whenever they want, have their clothes cleaned regularly, and even use flush toilets. The poor have limited water resources. The poor live in squats built from salvaged materials or abandoned houses; neither type of housing has running water. The poor buy their water one gallon at a time from pumps with fluctuating prices. The poor are dusty dirty because they can rarely shower or wash their clothes. Needless to say, there are no flush toilets for the Phoenix poor.

Not every place in this distopia Southwest has the water problems Phoenix does. Things are much worse in Texas, and refugees have poured into Arizona via New Mexico. The good people of New Mexico wanted nothing to do with Texas regugees and sent them on their way, sometimes violently. Life isn’t so hard in California and Nevada, and those states want to keep it that way by limiting who crosses their borders to use their limited resources. In this world, coyotes still guide people across borders, but the borders crossed are into states with water.

The most important thing in this world are water rights, and the water knife of the title makes sure his boss gets the water rights she needs to stay wealthy and priviliged.

There’s a lot of dark action in this book: shooting, torture, murder, death. Young women (called “bangbang girls,” usually Texans) sell their bodies for money and, hopefully, the chance to wash their panties in the sink while the rich man sleeps. A man who controls a neighborhood and demands a percentage of the money the area residents earn uses hyenas as part of his enforcement plan. Dams are blown up and precious water is diverted. People are tortured for answers. This book is so dark, in fact, that I put it aside for four months after reading the first nine chapters. The book was good, but it had me on edge, knowing all the characters were facing terrible fates. When I picked it up the second time, I must have been in a better state of mind, because I was able to enjoy the story without letting the violence get to me.

The action of the novel just keeps coming. I enjoyed the suspense of not knowing what would happen next or who would doublecross whom. I did, however, figure out the story’s key mystery long before the characters did. (Of course, I had a big picture view the characters were lacking.)

I also enjoyed the characters. I was pleased to see two of the three main characters through whose eyes the story is told are women. The women aren’t damsels-in-distress women either, but strong, ass-kicking, gonna do what has to be done women. Even though the book is primarily an action/adventure/mystery story, there is also character development, which I appreciated.

The social problems the book examines are not easy to look at. What happenes when modern life as we know it breaks down? What happens when one of humankind’s most basic, most necessary resources becomes so scare people are willing to kill for it? What happens when the environment changes to the point people may no longer be able to survive on the surface of the earth? The Water Knife raises these questions and offers only bleak answers.

Still, I’m glad I read this novel. It was difficult to get through some parts of it, but those hard parts really made the story ring true. It’s a good book, but maybe not for readers who can’t handle the dark side of humanity.

Toilet Paper Hero of Hoover Dam


IMG_3567I first learned  of the Toilet Paper Hero of Hoover Damn while reading a back issue of Sunset magazine.

I was delighted to learn the statue won the Reader’s Choice Award for the West’s Most Outrageous Roadside Attraction, beating out The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz, CA; the 22 foot-in-diameter donut atop the Randy’s Donuts building in Inglewood, CA; Spuds Drive-In Theater (complete with a “two-ton tater sitting in the bed of a candy-apple 1946 Chevy truck”) in Driggs, ID; the International UFO Museum in Roswell, NM; and the Hole n’ the Rock in Moab, UT.

At the time I read the the short blurb about the Toilet Paper Hero, I had toilet paper on my mind.

I was a camp host in a National Forest, and one of my duties was the upkeep of restrooms.

If, when you think of restrooms, your brain conjures images of flush toilets and sinks with running water and soap and paper towels nearby, you are not thinking of my campground restroom experience. The campground I was hosting had pit (also called “vault”) toilets. Nowhere in my campground nor in any other public campground on the mountain was there running water. The toilets I maintained didn’t flush, and there were no sinks, no soap, no paper towels.

In my five months as a camp host, I cleaned human feces off restroom floors and walls, chased a family of mice from a restroom, and dealt with a lot of toilet paper. I immediately knew that the Toilet Paper Hero was my kind of working class champion.

I was excited to see the Toilet Paper Hero was associated with the Hoover Dam. I’d been to the Hoover Dam, and I knew it was close to Las Vegas, NV. Since I was planning to visit friends in Vegas when I left California, I decided I’d make a pilgrimage to the home of the Toilet Paper Hero in Boulder City, NV.

I left Vegas by 7am on Saturday morning. I’d planned my route in advance, but had not been able to find an exact street address for the statue, nothing that was easily plugged into Google Maps. All I knew was that I had to take US 93, then turn onto Nevada Way and drive into downtown, looking for the corner of Nevada Way and Ash/Wyoming Streets. (Directions courtesy of http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/23150.)

I almost chickened out. I came to a fork in the road where I had to decide if I was going to go into the unknown (AKA downtown Boulder City) or just bypass the town and head toward the Hoover Dam and onward to Arizona. Since I wasn’t 100% sure of my directions, I was a little nervous. What if I got lost? What if I made a fool of myself?

Oh, come on! I chastised myself. You can do this! It’s the Toilet Paper Hero, for goodness sake. You’ve been looking forward to this for months.

So I did it. I found the Hero and made his acquaintance and took some photos.


This is the informational plaque which stands next to the Hero.

The statue was created by artist Steven Liguori. According to http://www.roadsideamerica.com/story/23150,

In 2007, Boulder City commissioned local artist Steven Liguori to immortalize “Alabam,” one of the unsung workers who helped to build nearby Hoover Dam.

Steven had earlier sculpted a heroic-size statue of a high scaler, one of the Dam’s most glamorous and exciting workers. But he felt that the unseen people of Hoover Dam deserved to be honored, too. When Boulder City launched a project for public art, Steven submitted his proposal for a statue of Alabam. The city, to its credit, accepted it.

Steven sculpted Alabam as he looked in old photos from the 1930s. The eight-foot-tall bronze statue — mixed with copper salvaged from the Dam’s electrical grid — shows Alabam wearing a fedora, overalls, and thick gloves, with a broom slung over his shoulder like a combat rifle, and a large bandolier of toilet paper rolls strapped across his chest. The man definitely had a sense of style.

IMG_3554Alabam was unveiled on a Boulder City street corner on June 29, 2007.

The same website says,

Alabam was a specialist. His job was to clean the outhouses of the vast construction site: sweeping refuse, tossing lime into holes, and restocking the always-diminishing supply of toilet paper.

Not much is known about Alabam. He was among the older workers. “Maybe his name was John or Bill, but there were lots of Johns and Bills at the Dam,” said Steven. “He was probably from Alabama, so they called him ‘Alabam’.”

IMG_3553In a job site filled with draftsmen and construction designers, Alabam referred to himself as “the sanitary engineer.”

“Alabam’s role might not seem important, but it was,” said Steven. Workers would start the day with a big breakfast at the mess hall, then pack a big lunch to take to the construction site. “But once you got to the Dam, you were stuck there all day.” The outhouses got used — a lot.

“Can you imagine cleaning latrines for 7,000 men in 120 degree heat?” Steven asked. “Can you imagine the smell? Oh my god!”

I really love that this statue is a based on a real person with a real personality, a man who had the sense of humor and the sense of his own worth to call himself “the sanitary engineer.” It would be a cool piece of art if it were a fictional representation of all the men who cleaned outhouses at the building site of the Hoover Dam. However I like it so much more knowing it is based on an individual, a real person who, like me and my co-workers, lived and breathed and sweated and was dirty at the end of the work day.


I’m glad I overcame my silly little fear of the unknown and stopped by to visit with Alabam.

IMG_3572All photos in this post were taken by me.