If you enjoy reading novels that spin around a wry and witty stream of consciousness, you are going to enjoy Brian Kimberling‘s new book, Snapper – unless you’re from Indiana. Then you may not be quite so appreciative (although you still should be).
In Snapper, we meet Nathan Lochmueller, who studies birds for a living… not much of a living, but a living. Not an ornithologist, he does field work surveying and gathering data on nesting birds for the Department of Natural Resources, or sometimes for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He spends a lot of time alone in the Indiana wilderness and has a deep appreciation for the birds and wildlife, having spent much of his in Bloomington. But that’s not what the book is about.
Snapper is about memories. It’s about one experience floating into another, a thin thread of an idea pulling at the hem of a larger story that comes to us in bits and pieces, and not necessarily in any conditioned order. It sometimes feels like this book is a bunch of reminiscent and somewhat random essays that jump from place to place in the past, yet with a voice that doesn’t abandon the present. No matter when they take place, the stories in the story feel, well, if not vibrant, then at least keen. Many of the memories are not happy ones, at least not “this is where we all sing and dance” happy. They often ache with longing, with regret, with a kind of apathy that comes from accepting your fate rather than railing against it.
But it’s also beautiful. Beautifully written, beautifully related. While there is longing and regret, there is never overt despair or cloying introspection. Not happy does not always equate with sad. Life is. And sometimes, it’s beautiful, even when it’s sparse or harsh.
Characters flit in and out of the verses of this story. A few stay, such as Nathan’s childhood friend Shane (their fathers shared office space at the University of Evansville, although Nathan’s dad is a mathematician and Shane’s dad is a poet). Whether it be having a near disastrous altercation with local wildlife while rowing across a stripper pit (unless you’re from Indiana, you’ll probably need to read the book to understand what a stripper pit is, but suffice it to say, it has nothing to do with various stages of undress) or attempting to smoke banana peels as feckless young men, or trading stories about parenthood, Shane pops in and out of the narrative.
I did have some beer – though I hadn’t known he was coming – but we didn’t stay up long. He was bone-weary and hadn’t arrived until almost eleven on a Friday night. We agreed I’d lend him the fare for a Greyhound home on Sunday. He fell across the couch and drifted off while I was still talking. The rain had followed him and battered my windows as if angry that he had got away.
But this book is not about that relationship.
Then there is Lola. If there is any lattice in these stories, she is it. Not that she figures into all of the narratives, but she has some lingering bit of influence in almost everything that Nathan does; if she is not a major or even a bit player, he will allude to her, or evoke her, or wonder what she might think of his predicament. She is the girl just out of his grasp, the one he has experienced only enough to keep him coming back for more, even when he knows there will be nothing there when he arrives; a wistful sigh, too much time invested for no tangible return, a sweet ache of longing.
Lola asked what I had been reading lately. It was a strange question, as though we met up every week or every month. She lived in Michigan and I lived in Vermont. I returned to Indiana as seldom as possible. My parents had sold my childhood home, full of stairs, and moved into a low-slung ranch house suitable for aging in. I couldn’t stand to be inside it; opening windows was forbidden because it disrupted the calculations of a comprehensive heating and air-conditioning system. My mom kept the blinds down most of the time anyway, and the house felt to me like a mausoleum. They had an ample backyard with shade trees and a comfortable porch, but they had no furniture out there because they didn’t use it. The move did not seem to affect my parent much. Once a week Dad fetched an armful of downmarket thrillers from the library, and read them every night, lamenting the decline of plot, coherence, and grammar. Mom stayed on top of various book club recommendations. I was floored when she told me that as an undergraduate music student her favorite writer was Zola. I came to visit about twice a year. 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. Vermont just takes your cash and shows you straight to the ski slopes.
But the book is not about Lola, either.
I would say this book is about finding yourself even when you aren’t looking. About how life-defining moments often accrue unbidden, and you don’t realize just how big they are, or how important they are, or how strong the people in them are or the actions taken in them are, until much later. It’s about starting with one thought and having it take you somewhere else until it finally settles and expands into something else that you never realized you were heading towards, but once you get there, you must follow through, and it’s all good, even when it isn’t.
Even in Indiana.