Book Report: Nature Noir by Jordan Fisher Smith (2006)

I bought this book at Webster Groves Book Shop for full price, gentle reader; yea, verily, I spent $13.95 plus tax on this book whereas I could have bought it online for the low, low price noted below or some smaller price at a chain bookstore because I live in a smaller town now (surrounded by St. Louis suburbs) and need to support the local merchants. Why, my very wife suggested I write down the ISBN numbers of books I was interested in so we could order them online, but I resisted, because I don’t think that’s playing fair to the small content stores we were frequenting that day. I did, however, put down most of the $60 in books I’d picked up since I already own thousands of unread books already.

But I did buy this one, especially since its back cover promised:

A nature book unlike any other, Jordan Fisher Smith’s startling account of fourteen years as a park ranger thoroughly dispels our idealized visions of life in the great outdoors. Instead of scout troops and placid birdwatchers, Smith’s beat–a stretch of land that has been officially condemned to be flooded–brings him into contact with drug users tweaked out to the point of violence, obsessed miners, and other dangerous creatures. In unflinchingly honest prose, he reveals the unexpectedly dark underbelly of patrolling and protecting public lands.

That and the title promised me something the book was not.

For starters, allow me to say that the writing is good. It’s vivid, it describes something that I haven’t seen well enough that I want to see it. However, it’s themetically vapid.

It sounds as though the book is designed so that it will describe a lot of encounters with bad men and thrilling pursuits in the wilderness. The first chapter itself lends itself to that, with an encounter with a drug-addled badman who, after a party on the beach, tries to throw a baby through a car window after an argument with the baby’s mother (driving the car). After a brief search, the rangers find the man when he wanders back onto the beach and collapses of an overdose. This, the first chapter, provides most of the excitement of the book.

Afterwards, the chapters include incidents that serve as springboards into the author’s opinion on environmentalism as filtered through the California state bureaucracy. The actual noir incidents occur in the flashbacks of reports to which author had access, and the book presents them in reverse order of their excitement. The author talks to someone who is following up on a cold case featuring a sheriff’s deputy who might have killed his wife and buried her in the park. The author goes on into the history of his current station, scheduled to be underwater when they build a new dam, and then the chapter is over, with nothing resolved. He only talked to the guy opening the cold case and looking for the grave of the missing wife.

When the author has a woman claim rape from a miner in the park, and the miner is beaten within inches of his life by the woman’s boyfriend, the author goes into the history of mining and the impact of the gold rush on the natural area around the park. Oh, yeah, the woman’s boyfriend might be making meth in an abandoned mine. The author fills in the appropriate papers and turns it over to the sheriff’s deputies, but he doubts anything will be done.

And so on, and so forth. About 100 pages in, I realized that the book I’d expected, based on the title and the back cover, were not forthcoming. I turned to the acknowledgements and saw someone told the author he could make a good essay out of his experiences. Hell, yes, he could have, but it’s a heck of a stretch in a memoir termed noir and promising encounters with bad men. Instead, I was treated to a number of chapters describing the history of the particular park and a subtle indictment of civilization for impacting the beauty of nature.

Aw, screw it. Or so I think the author said about chapter 10 (“Weak as Water”). Following some reminisce of accompanying parents of a drowned boy to the site where he drowned (not actually the drowning itself, which the author was nearly present for, but the accompanying of the parents to the site later), the author writes chapter 11 about a trip to an abandoned camp of a miner who was ornery. Before the camp was abandoned. Never mind, the scenery is lush and the trip to the camp mildly exciting as we read about damming upstream and its impact on the whitewater river impacted by miners in the previous century. But the camp is abandoned. And then we get the unvarnished rant.

In chapter 11, the ranger gets Lyme disease and abandons his dentist and job, and not in that order. Or maybe in that order. Lyme disease mucks with the narrative, and I was skimming. I mostly skipped the Epilogue, whereing the Mighty Heroes of California Environmentalism blocked continuation of the dam (putting Sacramento at risk, but from the chapter where the author recounts his fruitless search for a missing woman and the history of a flood that threatened Sacramento, I know he’d rather Sacramento drown than The Wilderness be spoiled). Maybe it did. I don’t even think I skimmed the last bit of the epilogue.

Well, there you have it. The book disappointed me greatly. I expected some dynamic tension of the ranger as a hallmark of civilization in the wild, cognizant of the folly of modern man and sentimental for the disappearing wilderness, but this fellow seems to root against civilization. Period. Also, let it be said that the Mariners trade paperback edition is on cheap paper and oddly enough smells of a freshly sharpened pencil every time I open it. I’m savaging this book especially on the account of the publishers who sent me into a genre I wouldn’t like. I liked the sound of the book from its title and its back cover so much I almost bought the book next to it at Webster Groves Book Shop because it sounded similar, but with a different bent. But thanks to this book, I’m leary of dabbling in this genre again. I bought this book in late November and bought it a month later–that’s phenomenal by MfBJN standards. But this one tome might have killed my interest in the genre of modern ranger novels.

In a personal note for Jordan Fisher Smith when he Googles himself: Dude, you write well, and I hope your Lyme disease is better. I didn’t like your book.

Books mentioned in this review: