Standing there, gaping at this monstrous and inhuman spectacle of rock and cloud and sky and space, I feel a ridiculous greed and possessiveness come over me. I want to know it all, possess it all, embrace the entire scene intimately, deeply, totally …
—EDWARD ABBEY, DESERT SOLITAIRE
BRONSON WAS UNEASY this morning. He’d been awakened by a silent flash of lightning and found himself slipping out of the house almost without thought long before dawn, leaving Mary and Yaya in bed, and stepping into the cold desert alone. It felt like rain to him, and rain in this part of Joshua Tree was an event, a divine missive from a god stingy with his communiqués. Bronson’s God was the one announced by the angel Moroni, the deity from the Book of Mormon, all of it a joke to the big cities, the coastal elites of his country. Mormons were generally known for their freaky polygamous ways, but also, paradoxically, for their whiter-shade-of-pale, clean-cut lifestyle, which included abstinence from coffee, alcohol, tobacco, and premarital sex; as if lack of twenty-first-century hipness was any reason not to believe.
No clouds, but damn did it feel like rain. Bronson kept venturing, blind in the night, his cowboy boots cracking the sand and dirt, moving every bit as much away from as toward something. In his pocket, he played with his “peep stones”—two worthless, jade-colored gems that he used to cover his eyes when he wanted to pray deeply and look within and see the writing on the wall of the sky. The desert seemed on schedule to receive about only two thirds of the 28 inches of average annual rainfall. It could be climate change. It could be a sinful, wayward flock. Bronson was known to his family as a rainmaker, like the old hucksters who used to travel the drought-ridden Midwest claiming that magic. He could feel the barometric pressure announce itself in the bones that he’d broken. Maybe it was just a trick of timing. He didn’t know. He just knew he seemed to be able to make it rain.
Like the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, Bronson did not have a surplus of formal education, but he had read on his own through much of Western civilization, Eastern too, in translation. You would be forgiven if you assumed that this Mormon cowboy jumping on a horse in the middle of the Mojave Desert adjacent to Joshua Tree National Park was not as well acquainted with Shakespeare, Nietzsche, Lao-Tze, and Marcus Aurelius as any tenured professor at Pepperdine, the school he had dropped out of before the end of sophomore year (after a balky knee and chronically sore shoulder cut short his baseball career) in order to pursue his taste for speed, controlled chaos, and beautiful machines as a Hollywood stuntman.
It was a good thing to be moving. Bronson owned so much land, so much unforgiving dust, miles of nothing, immune to the human hand of the Anthropocene age. His father’s mother, Delilah Bronson Powers, had bequeathed this Eden of cactus and rattlesnakes to him. Throughout his childhood, Bronson’s father, Fred, would tell him stories of the legendary Powers family, real estate visionaries who had made Los Angeles the quintessential American city, rising, he would say, like a man-made mirage from the desert by the Pacific. Fred Powers bemoaned his lot as a thrice-married car salesman, amateur poker player, golf shark, and minor league Ponzi schemer. Barred from practicing his most lucrative trade at many a golf course, the man kept numerous disguises and wigs in the trunk of his Cadillac to sneak onto the greens and cadge a few bucks off the famous actors and rich doctors before the sweat compromised the gum arabic and his phony mustache drooped. He could’ve been an actor. He was that handsome. He was charming and good with accents. But he had no need for love or admiration, only for the powers the world had denied him, his very name itself; he only ever wanted to be feared by a world that paid him no mind.
Kicked out of the family for unspecified (or so he told his son) sins and forced to live in the squalor of West LA (“East of Bundy, south of Sunset!” he would shout, like a curse), his looks and his health faded quickly with two packs of Kent and one bottle of Smirnoff a day. When he sporadically visited his son—that is, when he remembered that every second Saturday was his—he read to him Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper over and over again, filling the impressionable boy with infinite entitlement but no clue as to how to claim it, as if certainty and ambition itself were the only life skills necessary. He would tell him, “You’re the pauper prince. You’re Hollywood royalty, related to the great swashbuckler, Tyrone Power.” Fabrications and fantasies. But to the young boy, his father was a charming, all-powerful, capricious apparition who appeared now and then to remind him of his true destiny, as in any Saturday matinee, a kind of anti–Jiminy Cricket—“and never let your conscience be your guide.” He was Hamlet’s father’s ghost still living. In reality, Bronson’s father taught him nothing but a restless, free-roaming resentment and a love for baseball and the hometown Dodgers.
Bronson could clearly remember that, in 1974, his ailing father took him down to Grauman’s Chinese on opening day to watch the movie Chinatown, the epic Polanski/Towne thriller of water, greed, and incest in 1930s Los Angeles. Fred filled Bronson’s head with the bullshit yarn that the Mulwray family in the film was an opaque nom de cinema for Powers (this was a lie, of course—Mulwray was a front-rhyming stand-in for Mulholland—true California royalty). Sitting through a matinee in that dark theater on Hollywood Boulevard, Bronson marveled at how his father must have modeled his brand of practiced insouciance on Jack Nicholson in his very own fabricated origin story. Or somehow Nicholson was imitating his father. Fred did claim to know the movie star because he’d won thousands off him on the links. He leaned over to his boy, arched a cocky eyebrow, and crowed, “Sonuvabitch, that’s my eyebrow! Jack’s doing me, ripping me off.”
At the climax of the film, when the unspeakable incest is finally revealed, Fred took his son’s hand in his and squeezed. It was the first time Bronson could ever remember his father holding his hand. Something heavy and unworded passed between them, like a dark blessing. Bronson glanced over to see Fred crying as the credits rolled, another first. When Fred passed away the next year, he bequeathed to his son no money or skills to speak of, but rather an awe and disgust at his ancestry, having planted the seeds in the next generation of anger over lost birthrights, unacknowledged genetic superiority, unimaginable wealth, and influence denied. Like psychic DNA, Fred replicated, forged, and minted a copy of the resentments a long life of scamming failures had made of his own soul upon the impressionable soul of his boy. Bronson grew up unconsciously carrying that paternal chip, with an unrequited sense of entitlement and unrecognized nobility.
Though Fredrickson Powers, an only son, had been kicked out of the clan, predeceasing his mother, Delilah, Bronson, in his early thirties, with no savings to speak of, and with the aching body, broken bones, and the manageable but growing opioid reliance of a working, often banged-up stuntman, was flabbergasted to find himself inheriting an unimaginably sizable chunk of undeveloped desert in the Inland Empire. Why him? He didn’t know. He’d never even met his grandmother. He figured it was a fuck-you to his father. And every fuck-you, he knew, contained a bless-you on its flip side. He was his wayward father’s son, and this was his birthright and blessing. The Pauper had been recognized as Prince. And when he rode fast through his land today, he could feel the blessing press on his face and body like an embrace.
Delilah Powers had converted in midlife to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Bronson’s dad mocked that conversion to his son, claiming, “It’s only ’cause she wants to fuck Donny Osmond. And, it gives her scriptural license to be the repressive asshole she’s always been. Let me tell you, that stingy bitch has a rage for order.” The conversion had stuck its landing. Delilah, like Brigham Young himself, had chewed tobacco her entire life—a cowboy weakness she shared with her grandson. But now she gave up her chew, her six cups of coffee, and her Johnnie Walker Black, and moved from Los Angeles to San Bernardino County, which she knew had the highest concentration of Mormons of any county in California, more than 2 percent of its almost 2 million residents.
Mormons had, in fact, founded San Bernardino in 1851, setting up the city’s grid and initial government structure. But in the mid- 1850s, even as tensions between Mormons and the U.S. government intensified, the local LDS leaders chafed at the tight rein of Brigham Young; and the westernmost outpost of this American religion was abandoned. Brigham Young called all the San Bernardino Mormon founders back to Salt Lake City in 1857. Most Saints, close to three thousand, were obedient, and left San Bernardino. But the city and surroundings continued to grow into the fifth-largest county in the continental United States. Long gone is the dominant Mormon presence, replaced by Walmart, Amazon, and those who are paid barely a subsistence wage to keep the warehouses stocked and full. Present-day San Bernardino also boasts some of the worst pollution in an infamously smoggy state. But the Mormon footprint, the ghosts and the names, remains.
The one behavioral stipulation Delilah Powers had put in her will for her grandson, Bronson, was that the executors (all upper-echelon LDS elders) must make sure he “prove a good-faith show of conversion to Mormonism” in order to receive his inheritance. Mormonism? Bronson knew nothing about it. He thought it might be something like Scientology, which he’d tried for about a year at the behest of some globally successful, goofy little actor that he’d doubled on a few action films. He was initially drawn into the Scientology orbit because he shared that church’s disdain for psychology, both in template and treatment. Bronson instinctually hated the navel-gazing reductionism of the “talking cure,” tracing all ills back to early family trauma like some stuck parrotlike infant nattering obsessively about Ma and Pa. At Pepperdine, after quitting the baseball team because of injuries, Bronson suffered infrequent hallucinations, searing flashes of light, like lightning, that would drop him to his knees, followed by intense, debilitating three-day migraines. He underwent some tests, which found nothing; talked to a therapist, which did nothing. He was summarily diagnosed with depression and prescribed both prayer (Pepperdine was a Christian, dry campus) and an early SSRI, Prozac, which helped for a time. He didn’t feel happier, but at least the Prozac seemed to stop the lightning flashes and the migraines.
As a budding man of action, Bronson became a seeker of his own cure. In L. Ron Hubbard, he encountered a flamboyant con artist who sought to replace Freud’s neurotic cosmology; and though the call to power and its promises of getting “clear” from the past were enticing, Bronson didn’t jibe with the upbeat Stepford vibe or the Randian masters-of-the-universe arrogance. Plus, the guy, like Freud, had pseudoscientific jargon that pinged Bronson’s bullshit radar. And the loopy, B-movie, sci-fi top level secret sauce? Bronson couldn’t hang with an alpha and omega named Xenu. He would not pay the pyramid scheme cover charge to join the Sea Org and party on with John Travolta, Tom Cruise, and the rest of the clear folk till that volcano erupted and all the imprisoned Thetans were freed.
In comparison, Mormonism, the dark-horse nineteenth-century American adjunct to Christianity, was a fairly uncomplicated breeze to embrace. And for thousands of acres of pristine desert?! He’d fart “One Bad Apple” through a keyhole for that price. He figured he’d have to hide his tats and sit a test with some old fuddy-duddy named Brigham or Jedediah or Uriah, so the badass stuntman Bronson, popping more pills and fucking more women than was perhaps wise, got himself a Mormon “gold bible” and a biography of Joseph Smith and, never a good student, set out to ace his charade.
But a funny thing happened as he crammed for his spiritual audition. He started to get it. To feel it. Sure, most of it was semitransparent hokum in the great American tradition of positive-thinking, world-beating hucksterism from P. T. Barnum to L. Ron Hubbard, from Werner Erhard to Deepak Chopra to Tony Robbins, from Jemima Wilkinson to Marianne Williamson to Elizabeth Holmes; but there was something more. Hidden beneath its reputation as the most staid and repressive of American religious cults, Smith’s original Mormon vision was a rejection of the white gospel of success, a repudiation of Calvinist divine economic selection. The end-times here were reclaimed by the Native Americans (“Lamanites”) and the darker races, and the industrious, capitalist whites (“Nephites”) were doomed precisely because they worshipped money and success more than God and righteousness. To the backlot cowboy, this was a true revolutionary pearl obscured by the huckster’s smoke and mirrors.
Though he might not have been able to put it into words at the time, Bronson’s fall for Mormonism had been prepared by his own father’s disgust for his social betters. Fred had been a rebel without an adversary, and Smith chose the same enemies, but he fought them more poetically and powerfully—the establishment, the counters of money and arbiters of sexual morality, the so-called successful, the owners of this land—he called them all phonies, as Fred had. Bronson had been raised in the shadow of his father’s own Joseph Smith–like alienation from the status quo and was thus vulnerable to this attack, this call to overthrow the man.
The boy in Bronson, raised on Westerns, but always playing Indians rather than cowboys, was thrilled that the land would be returned to the Lamanites in the end-times, and that Europeans were called “gentiles”—foreigners on this new American soil. Bronson was painfully aware that he was only a drugstore cowboy because, coming so late in history, he had no choice but to play, rather than be, the part. Stuntmen were where cowboys went to die. All the actual skills of the cowboy, no longer demanded by the twentieth-century economy, were part and parcel of the stuntman’s playbook as the existence of the real West and real cowboys were nostalgically relegated to Westerns. Stuntmen tended to chew tobacco, drawl like stereotypical cowboys, walk and talk slowly and slightly bowlegged like John Wayne. Famously, John Ford ascribed the mysterious, enduring appeal of John Wayne, née Marion Morrison, to his ease in the saddle—he “looked good on a horse.”
Bronson, six feet one and a vascular 185 pounds, with a passing resemblance to a more macho Montgomery Clift, also looked good on a horse. And on a motorcycle, or in a helicopter. If it was fast, and lack of coordination, preparation, or attention could kill you, Bro’, as the fraternity of stuntmen called him, looked damn good on it, in it, or hanging off it. In fact, one of the reasons he quit the movies was because they started doing all those computer-generated special effects in postproduction and made everything on set safer. Why expose a man to actual fire and explosives if that fire can be painted on just as convincingly by some geek with a computer? Well, because daring men like Bronson had trained for real fire, that’s why.
When he was rehabbing his knee for baseball at Pepperdine, a girl he was dating from the diving team had introduced him to the trampoline by the pool that the divers practiced on. She thought it could be a way to keep his balance fresh for baseball. He was skeptical, figuring it was for children, like a bouncy castle. He hadn’t executed the old “seat-knee-seat” since grade school, but he was immediately struck by how demanding and athletic the moves were. He loved learning to fly upside down, spinning, the sky and the ground exchanging places. He had an acute gyroscopic talent, his body acclimating naturally, unconsciously in the air, always knowing how and when to right itself. Impressed, his girlfriend said, “You got proprioceptors for days, dude.” The divers wanted him to try out for the team, but all he wanted to do was the tramp. At the apex of his highest bounces, he could see the ocean just a few hundred yards across the Pacific Coast Highway. He spent hours suspended like this, weightless as a bird, careless as a child.
He’d thought of being an actor for a time, an ambition he shared with no one, out of embarrassment, and eventually decided that it was too coddled and phony a life, but as he somersaulted and fell and dove, and reveled in his own natural gifts and ease, he began to wonder how he might stay in this feeling longer and about what daredevils and stuntmen did. And maybe a stuntman, invisibly replacing the more “valuable” actor in dangerous circumstances, was actually the more real one. And yet, years later, even as he succeeded in this field, he knew he was a ghost, an echo of the real men and real cowboys; he was a double, a shadow, and when he doubled the lead in a film, he was further removed from authenticity—the shadow of a shadow casting yet another shadow on the silver screen. This latter-day impotence gnawed invisibly at his soul till he read about Joseph Smith and heard the first stirrings of a call, what Descartes called the “holy music of the self.”
Authenticity, the substance and very marrow of life, according to Joseph Smith, was still in the late air; you can write your own story, your own bible—“wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written. For I command all men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the ‘islands of the sea,’ that they shall write the words which I speak unto them.” The bible is still being written. Everybody has a bible in them. Everyone is a bible.
Twenty-four-year-old Joseph Smith, whose very name could be a synonym for “everyman,” had somehow authored a true declaration of Emersonian spiritual independence and a religious companion to its 1776 political precursor. Bronson read somewhere that Thomas Jefferson had crossed out all the miracles in his copy of the New Testament, leaving only the teachings and parables of Jesus. But where was the fun in that? Essentially Jefferson had cut all the movie-worthy moments in the old book, leaving no place for a stuntman to turn water into wine, cast out demons, touch lepers, or return from the dead. What was a movie stunt but the performance, through painstaking preparation, of a miracle? These macho magic tricks had been the heart of Bronson’s calling, and now it thrilled him that Smith had rightly turned the overly rational Jeffersonian trend on its head. Smith seemed hell-bent on effacing everything but the stunts and miracles; his soundtrack, Jesus Christ’s greatest hits. Joseph Smith was the magic, Bronson’s spiritual father and new lifestyle guru. It was Smith’s improvised, vital worldview, more than the dubious events described in his bible, that whispered truth to Bronson: one of presence, not absence, of here and now, not there and then.
Copyright © 2021 by David Duchovny