Meagan Day begins Maximum Sunlight with a broad opening but a likely accurate generalization that, “Most of unincorporated America is relatively civilized” and characterizes the small desert town about which she writes with a history of abandonment. The opening lines are the same reassurance I’ve told myself upon arriving for the first time to small desert towns out West assuring myself that I am safe, I won’t get mugged, and people are inherently good. In Tonopah, Nevada—the setting for Maximum Sunlight—descendants of miners and a seemingly disproportionate number of people who landed there when their car broke down now populate the town and frequent its numerous bars. Tonopah, Nevada used to be an important town but like a photograph, like a number of other small towns, Tonopah is a picture of the past. The accompanying photographs by Hannah Klein are familiar to the American West landscape and promote an understanding of an open frontier populated by individuals who sought a better life but ended up detoured and derided but content. Photographs of diners, junk cars on a sand and sky horizon, and clown figurines mark Tonopah as either left behind or maudlin. At times Klein’s photographs punctuate Day’s writing but sequencing them in clusters—there are almost exactly twenty pages of text between each set of photographs, paper quality, and layout leave the images feeling more like illustrations than a part of the story. Klein’s photographs within a larger edit could likely tell a story of Tonopah on their own but alongside Day’s written account the story and photographs compete for attention.
Day herself seems to have at least a cursory familiarity with photography and its history. She describes the architecture of Tonopah as “junkyard vernacular.” In one interview she asks a bar patron to describe how he looks because she will only have an audio recording to reference later when she is editing. The inclination to make someone aware of their own visual presence and her often visceral descriptions of the town suggests that Day is just as visually inclined as she is literarily. She references photographs she makes herself and I wonder why her own photography does not accompany her written work and allow photographer Hannah Klein’s photographs their own publication space by which they would likely benefit. Day’s description of a photograph she makes on her first visit to Tonopah likens it to Roland Barthe’s characterization of photography as nostalgic—a “subtle aspect that demands acute attention and inspires a groundswell of emotional attachment for reasons that elude reason.” Her writing collectively reads much like a photograph. She depicts Tonopah’s suburban-like outskirts with its “basketball hoops affixed above garage doors at the end of smooth driveways” as though it was a Garry Winogrand or Robert Adams photograph and the downtown marked by a clown themed hotel, dive bars, and drug use like a frame from Gregory Halpern’s A or Zzyzx.
Each short chapter of Maximum Sunlight is an account of an encounter with a resident of the town—anecdotal stories of drunkenness, lost jobs, skin heads, juke boxes, the government, and resilience. Each chapter is like the edges of a photograph—sometimes abruptly dissecting and at times cutting short what happened outside the frame or the rest of the story. A story about life long affection for Tonopah at the Bug Bar ends almost as abruptly as the bar’s owner unplugging the jukebox, cutting short Billy Joel and Day’s account of the story a few lines later with how sage smells so wide open. Altogether the chapters read like snapshots of a forced juxtaposition with the people of Tonopah, freedom, and a tenuous relationship with the government. Specifically the people of Tonopah are at odds with the Bureau of Land Management which owns all the open land surrounding the town and to many the BLM is “a symptom and agent of federal authoritarianism, bureaucratic tyranny, and government overreach.” You cannot build on this land “but you can do just about anything else—hunt, trap, rummage for rocks and artifacts, drive your four-wheeler or pre-runner as fast as your heart desires.” Government interferes is the broadly accepted libertarian sentiment of Tonopah.
Despite the disparate stories marked by chapters (and one chapter that takes a sort of meta break from the otherwise fairly straightforward interview based account of Tonopah dedicated to Day spending time with another author also visiting Tonopah) a rhythm develops. A pulsing and at times jittering frequency not unlike the relationship between freedom and government oversight, sobriety and job loss, or hope and despair as conveyed throughout Maximum Sunlight. “Tonophans have a genius trick up their sleeve…” writes Day. One “that helps them thrive in isolation. They know that exposure to the desert can alter perception like a narcotic. If they find they’re getting too used to civilization, and the town is looking a bit run-down, they go out and terrify themselves in the badlands.” Maximum Sunlight might start out broadly but ends with abrupt specificity regarding the value of balanced perspective.