The novelist Nelson Algren was called a “bard of the down-and-outer,” a writer whose characters were people ignored by literature. Noah Cicero’s new novel Give It to the Grand Canyon continues this storytelling tradition by recording the deeds of the down-and-outers who scoop ice cream for tourists in the Arizona desert during the summer. In a recent Entropy interview, Cicero said he wrote the book “because I have been to many National Parks and usually there is a book shelf at the Visitor Centers and souvenir shops, but the books are all written by historians and National Park Rangers, there has never been a book by a person who works concessions, so I decided to make that book exist.” Give It to the Grand Canyon is a novel fit for book shelves in National Parks and apartments alike, a book-length meditation where one man shouts his pain into the canyon so can he listen for the answers that echo back to him.
The novel is narrated by Billy Cox, who tells the story of when he moved back to the United States in the summer of 2013 when he was thirty-three years old after teaching English in South Korea for three years. He briefly returns to his hometown in Ohio, but he is unemployed, overeducated, and alone, unable to fit in with his friends and family. He says, “I was the only one with a master’s, the only one that had lived abroad, the only one that had read Infinite Jest, all the way through, but I was alone.” He then gets a job across the country working as a cashier in the Bright Angel Restaurant in the Grand Canyon, a place he knows well.
Billy first visited the Grand Canyon when he was twelve years old, but it’s not the topography of the canyon that stayed with him. In fact, he notes, “I don’t remember seeing it exactly, but the feeling was strong, the feeling of experiencing it was powerful, overwhelming, some sort of answer I was always looking for.” This is where Cicero introduces the canyon’s power, and throughout the novel, he shows the bond Billy has with the canyon. Billy notes:
It was like all my American dreams had come true. They had never come true in Ohio, but there in Arizona, they had come true. I don’t know why I felt so attracted to the Grand Canyon, what was inside me, or what was inside it, that compelled me to such emotion, but I knew it was true.
This feeling leads Billy to return to the Grand Canyon after high school to work as a dishwasher at the El Tovar Hotel, but he’s fired for drinking on the job and his life continues elsewhere. This backstory is established within the first few pages, and by the end of the first chapter, Billy’s back at the Grand Canyon, fifteen years older but in many ways the same person he was when he first lived there. He’s working a minimum wage job, living in a residence hall, and drinking and partying with the mostly twentysomething employees.
Billy’s job has him back to his eighteen-year-old life, and his relationships with other employees are familiar for first-year college students. There’s Dream, a Jamaican man who becomes Billy’s friend simply because he lives across the hall. Billy knocks on his door and asks him if he wants to go to Hopi Point to watch the sunset. Dream asks “if two guys can see a sunset together” and Billy says, “I don’t know, I’m lonely, let’s go.” Billy meets Kaja, a Polish woman, at a party at a residence hall. They have a hot-and-cold relationship and Billy overthinks about their cuddling and hand holding like a teenager. These employees and others are present throughout the book, but there’s also a character who’s absent, the cause of the Billy’s heartache that led to his return to the canyon, who whips up dust storms as she randomly enters his thoughts. It’s this relationship that Give It to the Grand Canyon its major through line.
Even Grand Canyon employees who appear in only one chapter have backstories. This care for even the most minor characters is how Cicero celebrates the hardworking people behind the postcard beauty of the National Park. There’s an old Navajo man who plays Johnny Cash songs on his guitar at a party, a cowboy who works as a wrangler and brings mules up and down the canyon for tourists all day and drinks alone at the bar, a Miss Teen Navajo who records her own music and makes hot dogs. In fact, it’s a minor character named Patricia, a Filipino woman who works in the hotel, who gives the novel its name. On a hike with Billy, she says, “I believe if you have pain, you can give it to the Grand Canyon, the canyon will take it, I believe that.” Billy quotes Patricia in the first line of the novel, showing he learns as much from his coworkers as he did from the thousands of pages he read in for his master’s.
Give It to the Grand Canyon is a slim novel, about one hundred fifty pages, and Cicero’s spare prose eschews excessive descriptions of the environment to focus on the characters. The book shelves are full of travel guides about the flora and fauna of the Grand Canyon. The chapters are short and self-contained, titled after the people and places that appear in them, and it’s no surprise that several have been excerpted and published in places such as New York Tyrant, as many chapters can be satisfyingly read as short stories.
There’s a wry humor throughout the novel, as Billy makes self-deprecating jokes and acknowledges he is often the odd man out, such as: “Somewhere in Nebraska I was pooping in a bathroom and saw written on the wall of the stall, ‘Lost in America.’ I knew that was my fate.” There’s also a wistfulness, particularly after Billy hikes, when he is closest to the power of the canyon, such as this passage after Billy hikes with Kaja:
When we got to the top the sun was setting, we had done it. We had made it to the bottom and back to the top together, which was like sharing blood. Hiking the canyon leaves a deep imprint on your mind, on your soul, maybe even your eternal soul, that even in Heaven, in future lives, you are always connected to those people you’ve been to the bottom of the canyon with.
In Give It to the Grand Canyon, Cicero highlights the awe of the National Park better than any travel guide could, inviting the reader to share in the magic it creates for the people who travel there from Ohio, from South Korea, from anywhere. If you watch the sunset at the Desert View Tower, it can make you believe in the American dream. Yet the canyon has no concern for civilization. It was created before civilization, and it will be there after civilization has ended. Give It to the Grand Canyon shows that the canyon is a feeling as much as it is a place, and while the canyon itself is permanent, feelings are fleeting, changing with the seasons. The Grand Canyon may not have the answers you are looking for, but there is beauty in what it does have, how it can take away your pain, even if it’s only for a summer.
Give It to the Grand Canyon, by Noah Cicero. Philosophical Idiot, July 2019. 156 pages. $12.99, paper.
Zachary Kocanda holds an MA in creative writing from Ball State University. His reviews have been published in Heavy Feather Review and Mid-American Review. He lives in Illinois, where he works as an editor.