We are told not to judge books by their covers. We should also not judge books by their titles: Dirt Bikes, Drones, And Other Ways To Fly is neither Twitter- nor acronym-friendly (DBDAOWTF?). Based on the title, I didn’t expect a moving study of how we respond to grief. Based on the title, I didn’t expect a thoughtful exploration of the morality of military drone use and how our nation’s military engagements affect small-town America. And, based on the title, I didn’t expect the novel to explicitly incorporate the Emersonian concept of the Over-Soul either. But Conrad Wesselhoeft addresses all these and more in his young adult novel.
Based on the title (and the cover), I did expect some radical dirt bike antics, and I was not disappointed. Arlo Santiago is a wizard on his dirt bike as he tears down New Mexico’s highways and dusty mesas. He rides for the thrill, but also for the peace of mind he finds when he is in “the zone.” A peace of mind he rarely finds in his daily life, as he struggles to cope with the recent, sudden death of his mother, the ensuing alcoholic decline of his father, and the ongoing physical decline of his younger sister from Huntington’s disease. Add to this the economic decline of his small ranching town of Clay Allison, and you can see why Arlo might be willing to risk his life for the ultimate stunt and the ultimate payoff.
The ultimate payoff might also come from a more unexpected source: Arlo’s prowess at the video game Drone Pilot. It seems others have paid notice to his high scores in this online game, and these shadowy military/government figures want to see how well Arlo’s skills translate to flying actual military drones. They are more than willing to compensate him for these skills, compensation Arlo’s family needs to find peace, even though the “drone zone” peace Arlo finds from playing the game doesn’t translate to pulling the trigger in an actual war zone where innocents may be killed.
If this sounds like a lot to weave together, it is (and it doesn’t even include the love interest and water rights subplot). To his credit, Wesselhoeft mostly pulls it all together (depending on how effectively you think he wields the “Over-Soul” idea). What he undeniably does with aplomb is provide a sense of place, and a sense of place rarely found in popular culture. This is not Walter White’s New Mexico of Albuquerque, nor the Taos/Santa Fe corridor. This is not tourist New Mexico. This is the New Mexico of small ranchos and an often self-imposed isolation. Having lived in New Mexico, I vouch for how well Wesselhoeft captures its unique physical and cultural geography.
Never been to the northeast corner of New Mexico? Read Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly and you will feel as though you have. Ever struggled to deal with loss? Read Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly and you will better understand your struggle. Ever dismissed a book based on its title? Dirt Bikes, Drones, and Other Ways to Fly will show you what you might be missing.