A great, hilarious new voice in fiction: the poignant, all-too-human recollections of an affable bird researcher in the Indiana backwater as he goes through a disastrous yet heartening love affair with the place and its people.
Nathan Lochmueller studies birds, earning just enough money to live on. He drives a glitter-festooned truck, the Gypsy Moth, and he is in love with Lola, a woman so free-spirited and mysterious she can break a man’s heart with a sigh or a shrug. Around them swirls a remarkable cast of characters: the proprietor of Fast Eddie’s Burgers & Beer, the genius behind “Thong Thursdays”; Uncle Dart, a Texan who brings his swagger to Indiana with profound and nearly devastating results; a snapping turtle with a taste for thumbs; a German shepherd who howls backup vocals; and the very charismatic state of Indiana itself. And at the center of it all is Nathan, creeping through the forest to observe the birds he loves and coming to terms with the accidental turns his life has taken.
Brian Kimberling's debut novel, Snapper, features thirteen chapters that are really loosely connected stories chronicling Nathan Lochmueller's maturation into adulthood. Nathan grew up in southern Indiana (as did author Kimberling). After graduating with a philosophy degree, he accepts a job as a songbird field researcher. Nathan spends his time hiking through the woods locating songbirds, their nests, and tracking them. During this time period Nathan falls in love with Lola.
Nathan has a love/hate relationship with Indiana. Even as he shares the foibles of its people, he has a devotion to them, especially Evansville. But this novel is not simply about an amateur ornithologist stumbling through life. It's so much more and tackles Nathan's maturation with a great deal of wry humor and thoughtful insight. While relating the blunders and shortcomings of those around him he calmly accepts the absurdities as a part of life. Most of the stories are college/post college but some go back to high school. They end with Nathan in his thirties.
The characters Kimberling has assembled in Nathan's stories are unforgettable. There is Lola who Nathan worships even while she's unfaithful; Gerald, his socially awkward boss who owns a sofa and bird guides; his friend, Shane, with whom he has several interesting experiences before Shane becomes a librarian; his Texan uncle Dart who has a clash with the clan; Fast Eddie who in the future will promote "Thong Thursdays" at his business; Ernie and Maude of Santa Claus, Indiana; and Darren, the man who ended his career as a songbird field researcher.
I really enjoyed the writing in Snapper - the word play and the descriptions were wonderful. Kimberling manages to be funny and subtle while making a poignant observation. For example: "A real ornithologist spends his life in a database: I was the underpaid field hand who collected the information in that database. I was like a voracious reader unwilling to taint or corrupt his passion by submitting to years of studying postcolonialism or feminist theory. "(pg. 140) (Touché Brian - you just described my passion for book blogging.)
As Kimberling captures the haphazard, accidental path Nathan's life takes it reminds me that many of us have taken a rather accidental road to get where we are years later. And the results are not always a bad thing, despite how it may look from the outside.
Oh, and the cover of this book is gorgeous. It features reproductions of John James Audubon images.
Very Highly Recommended
Brian Kimberling grew up in southern Indiana and spent two years working as a professional birdwatcher before living in the Czech Republic, Turkey, Mexico, and now England. He received an MA in creative writing from Bath Spa University in 2010.
Disclosure: I was given a copy of this book by Pantheon Books/Random House for review purposes.