By Brian Kimberling
Pantheon $24.95, 224 pages
“Snapper” is not a book about fish. Nor is it about birds, although birds play an important role. It isn’t really a novel, or even a collection of short stories. It is what the author correctly calls “a book.”
Malcolm Cowley, in his introduction to “Winesburg, Ohio,” noted, ” … American folk tales usually end with a ‘snapper’ — that is, after starting with the plausible, they progress through the barely possible to the flatly incredible, then wait for a laugh. Magazine fiction used to follow — and much of it still does — a pattern leading to a different sort of snapper, one that calls for a gasp of surprise or relief instead of a guffaw. [Sherwood] Anderson broke the pattern by writing stories that not only lacked snappers, in most cases, but even had no plots in the usual sense. The tales he told in his Midwestern drawl were not incidents or episodes, they were moments, each complete in itself.”
The description fits “Snapper,” for Brian Kimberling’s first “novel” is a series of vignettes recounting the early adulthood of his protagonist, Nathan Lochmueller. The tone is one of picaresque cynicism, combined with tender romanticism. It’s funny, irreverent and reminiscent of Charles Portis’ writing about Arkansas, although “Snapper” takes place in Indiana. The reader doesn’t laugh out loud or guffaw, but he chuckles all the way through.
Nathan had a job tracking and charting birds in the woodlands of southern Indiana for Indiana University, a job he got by accident when “a sycamore tree landed on the roof of my predecessor’s 4 x 4 during a thunderstorm.” He tracked songbirds back to their nests and monitored the progress of their offspring. Finding birds’ nests was difficult: “The only way you will find her nest is if she shows you, and she won’t show you if she knows you are there. It’s like staking out the girls’ shower block at summer camp. It can be done, but it takes skill.” He knew “every tree, ravine, raccoon lair, fox den, and deer run within my square mile. I knew the local humans only by reputation, and I would have preferred to keep it that way.”
Bird-tracking requires climbing trees, lying in the mud, being subject to insect and snake bites, and great patience, as well as facing the danger of other human beings out to shoot songbirds, an illegal activity. It also means being caught in fierce storms. “A proper Indiana twister looks something like God got fed up with his spinach … Much as moonlight may turn everything silver or blue, tornado light causes great swirling, wet wisps of green cloud, wavering green shadows on the ground.” Caught in such a tornado, what Nathan heard “was purely chaotic, an unhinged and unpredictable malevolence, demon song; lightning struck twice nearby, and I could not hear the thunderclaps because the whole chorus of hell overwhelmed them. God, perhaps suffering a midlife crisis by now, was off seeking deliverance on all the coasts of dark destruction where every wave sounds the rush and crumble of ruin.”
Indiana itself is very much a part of Nathan’s tales. He grew up in Evansville, a town he claims to despise, one where his father was a mathematics professor. “[I]f Indiana is the bastard son of the Midwest, then Evansville is Indiana’s snot-nosed stepchild.” “In Indiana there was no … broad solidarity, no Southern cultural cohesion. There were just loners in the trees with guns.” Central Indiana has beautiful autumn foliage. “By contrast, Southern Indiana, with the humidity of a great river, swings between subtropical heat and subarctic cold with hardly an interval between … . Evansville is still a river town, full of brash, brawling beer drinkers and women with skin like goat leather.”
But despite his criticism, Nathan loved Indiana: “There’s a week in May and about two in October when Indiana slips on a nice dress and calls you sweetheart for no good reason.” He spent his adolescence with “a group formed from mere proximity” with whom he engaged in nonadventurous adventures, be it fishing, skinny dipping, or just drinking beer. As time went on, the group disbanded and each member developed in his own peculiar way. “Flynn got a job; Peter “went through a long phase of stealing car stereos, sometimes shooting a troublesome dog with a tear gas gun he found in an antique shop.” Shane became a librarian, and Eddie became the wealthy owner of Fast Eddie’s Burgers & Beer, where he “inaugurated a thong contest in which lady customers participated for free drinks and dinner.”
Nathan’s leitmotif is his infatuation with Lola, who had “long, coppery hair and freckled arms and calm blue eyes,” and seemed to have a magic power over any man she met. She was a free spirit, and Nathan loved her. Sometimes she and Nathan were lovers; always they were friends with thoughts to share. “Talking to Lola was like leading some old-fashioned dance. She did not often bring up a topic herself, but she responded to anything I said thoughtfully, at length, ending in a droll flourish or a penetrating question.” Summer afternoons were spent “in the crumbling remains of a World War II shipyard over the river … . It was essentially a vast concrete box directly fronting the shoreline; in the rain you could sit inside with a fire going. If a bottle, bucket, log, basketball, prosthetic limb, hat, Barbie doll, or child’s car seat floated by we’d throw rocks at it. ” Or, they would just watch and wave to the coal barges on the Ohio River on their way to Pittsburgh or Memphis.
“Snapper” is full of wonderfully eccentric characters, such as Nathan’s Texan aunt and uncle, Loretta and Dart. Or his so-called permanently stoned friend, Darren, who pushed Nathan headfirst down a flight of marble stairs, permanently damaging Nathan’s hearing in one ear.
There’s a delightful episode involving a human bone Nathan found in a cemetery, a bone which he was unable to return either to the cemetery or the university or even the police. Ultimately, even with a philosophy degree from Bloomington, Nathan winds up in Vermont at a center for injured birds. There, he meets Annie, and perhaps they live happily ever after, but Mr. Kimberling doesn’t tell us that. All the reader can do is wish this endearing Hoosier well. Mr. Kimberling, a Hoosier himself, now lives in Bath, England. He has given his readers a book of quixotic charm. Fact or fiction, “Snapper” is a delight.
Corinna Lothar is a writer and critic in Washington.