"....The truth is out there."
-- Dr. Jerome Jackson, 2002 (... & Agent Fox Mulder)
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
"All truth passes through 3 stages: First it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident."
-- Arthur Schopenhauer
Friday, June 29, 2012
-- Book Review --
I previously promoted Canadian Tom Gallant's recent novel, "The Lord God Bird," before actually seeing it, and now with so little other news to report, and having read it, I may as well do my own review….
First, one should know that I can count on the fingers of one hand (and not including the thumb!) the number of novels I've read in the last 20 years, so I ain't the finest judge of fiction (in fact I tend to be hyper-critical of it)! It takes a work like Gallant's to even grab my (prejudiced) attention much, and spend $$$ on a novel.
With that said, I recommend this quaint and odd little book to all Ivory-bill aficionados in particular, and nature readers more generally… I want to say that upfront, because I don't want the criticisms ahead to be taken too weightily.
Gallant's writing is about as terse and abrupt as any I've encountered, and yet still descriptive. The nameless main characters are (possibly paradoxically) both sparsely, yet richly, drawn out. The writing is almost too spare and pithy for my taste, but in a short volume, it nonetheless works well, and will please most readers. The overriding effect is that of deep 'truths'/insights being continuously but nonchalantly proffered to the reader from the main protagonist.
The story is surprisingly close in general pattern to actual events of the last several years: a local Arkansas outdoorsman (who remains nameless throughout) spots an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in the Big Woods of Arkansas, and the news soon travels to the ivory-towered world of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Two representatives from there visit the area and quickly also spot the bird, bringing in even more academic types and volunteers for a more thorough search of the area… sound familiar?
Obviously, the book is based on the real events that this blog has followed so closely for the last 6 years, yet its unfolding story is told in a completely fictionalized form, so while the pattern sounds familiar, the details differ greatly. I find it a bit odd that Gallant chose to stay as close to an actual sequence of events as he did (when he had an immense world of fictional possibilities to draw from)… but having done that, I find it odd that he didn't choose even more of the events from the last 6 years that were available to weave into the story. There have been so many elements of the Ivory-bill saga that could be fictionalized into interesting twists and mysteries and storylines… I think he missed a lot of potential opportunities here; but this book is more a succinct and heartfelt telling, than a highly-involved weaving.
For me, the novel takes off with chapter 3, when the Ivory-billed Woodpecker itself comes on stage as an anthropomorphically-thinking/'speaking' character. The anthropomorphized Ivory-bills are something you will either read and find off-putting… or, read and tear up at. For most readers of this blog I hope it is the latter. For me it is a centerpiece of the volume; a sort of flight-of-fancy element that lets the story carve out a special niche, as we surreptitiously gain access to the thoughts/'feelings' of the iconic species. In fact, I would've liked to have seen a lot more of it in the pages.
In chapter 8, "Ron" and "Steve" from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology enter the scenario, and as so often happens in fiction, begin playing the role of 'outsider' academics cast into the real world of the main character who is wary of them. I won't go much into the details of the storyline, nor the ending, so as not to spoil it for any readers. Much of the narrative is about the relationships that develop between the main character and the varied others who enter his world following his sighting. The main character's outlook and 'philosophy' of sorts is also an ongoing thread throughout these pages. And there are of course many interludes, focused on the action of the Ivory-bill 'characters' as well, as they succeed and fail and succeed again at raising young, while warily watching the human invasion of their premises. The story moves along at an easy-flowing pace; sometimes a bit predictable, but not too predictable. And the ending pleases.
On the critical side I felt the volume suffered from some choppiness, some under-development, and possibly some factual glitches, but overall was a wonderful effort for a first-time novel (Gallant has previously written non-fiction). It is a somewhat lyrical ode to nature, though possibly not quite as lyrical as I was expecting or hoping for. At times, for me, the volume alternated between being a simple pleasant human story and being a loftier work, on the verge of soaring... but never sustained its loftiness long enough. The ending is poignant and a tad haunting, but could've been even more powerful (that's just my take, as someone inordinately wrapped-up in this species, and who may have held unrealistically high expectations that the book couldn't attain). One of the advance blurbs on the book's back cover calls it a "sweet uplifting parable for our times." I think that's as good a 6-word summation as I could offer.
Four times in the last 20 years I have myself started writing (and failed to finish), an Ivory-billed Woodpecker book: 3 of those efforts were non-fiction (each with a quite different approach), but one was a novel. The novel I envisioned carried a different plot than Tom's book, but a somewhat similar tone, 'feel' or 'mystique' to what Gallant has created here. His is a crisper, probably simpler, story than I had in mind, and I'm thrilled he told it. So despite the mild criticisms, I do heartily recommend it to all who are enamored of this iconic bird, or simply in search of an enjoyable nature story. I'm glad someone took the time to write it (and, in the process, to exhibit so much respect for the subject)… the Ivory-bill deserves no less.
Another recent piece on Tom's book here: