Michael J. Rosen, Editor
(Harper/Collins)We picked this up with some trepidation. We have found out that some of the writers from yore just don't work out at all nowadays, and we are sorry we even tried, because we dislike learning how silly we were back then, when we read, so lovingly, Will Cuppy, Robert Heinlein, Robert Benchley, Philip Wylie --- and now we find out how dated and simplistic they are.
Thurber was a mainstay at the old New Yorker until he died in 1961. He was also an amateur artist --- people and animals in his hands were two-dimensional and rough (he never could do hands or necks). Dozens of his brief pieces and twenty-five of his longer essays are included here, along with almost 200 of his drawings, including one in the lower right corner of the volume that you can flip to make dog and mouse --- it's either a mouse or a bug, who knows? --- move across the page, up the stairs, and back down again. Thurber art is an acquired taste.
I was prepared to like The Dog Department not at all. It's hard for some of us to be fond of books that anthropomorphise dogs, since over the years we have come to the conclusion that dogs are nothing more than highly sophisticated parasites who have figured out how to do a number on humans. They find that sentimental bone that most of us have and by stroking it, they make us care for them too much.
(In the interest of complete editorial disclosure, I will report that, even now, as we speak, I have two dogs lying about my room. I must also tell you that the two of them --- a street-dog named Doggie, a hairy Mexican chihuahua, Pantouflas --- drive me nuts. Both of them think I am the cat's pajamas, if I may use that phrase, and when I get back to my desk --- from the store, from the post office, from the bathroom --- their reaction is disgustingly sentimental, sloppy, noisy. You'd think that I had been long gone to Ouagadougou on extended sabbatical.)Thurber can and does find human traits in his dogs. In another writer's hands it would merely be cute, but for him there is always a hint of exasperation, if not marveling. For example, his boyhood chum Rex, an "American bull terrier," liked to swim.
Swimming was his favorite recreation. The first time he ever saw a body of water (Alum Creek), he trotted nervously along the steep bank for a while, fell to barking wildly, and finally plunged in from a height of eight feet or more. I shall always remember that shining, virgin dive. Then he swam upstream and back just for the pleasure of it, like a man. It was fun to see him battle upstream against a stiff current, struggling and growling every foot of the way. He had as much fun in the water as any person I have known. You didn't have to throw a stick in the water to get him to go in. Of course, he would bring back a stick to you if you did throw one in. He would even have brought back a piano if you had thrown one in.
Then there is Jeannie, their Scottish terrier who discovered that if she went over to the other side of the lake from their summer home and sat up in front of the tourists' camp there, she would get free treats:
She had muzzled in, and for some time had been spending her days shaking down the cottagers for hamburgers, fried potatoes, cake, and marshmallows. They wondered where the cute little dog came from in the morning and where she went at night....
She figured out that the long trip home after her orgies was a waste of time, an unnecessary loop in her new economy [for] when she got home there was no payoff except a plain wholesome meal once a day. That was all right for young dogs and very old dogs and spaniels, but not for a terrier who had struck it rich over the hills.
Then there was his aunt, who the two family dogs hated:
My brightest remembrance of the old house goes back to the confused and noisy second and last visit of Aunt Mary, who had cut her first visit short because she hated our two dogs --- Judge, an irritable old pug, and Sampson, a restless water spaniel --- and they hated her. She had snarled at them and they had growled at her all during her stay with us, and not even my mother remembers how she persuaded the old lady to come back for a weekend, but she did, and what is more, she cajoled Aunt Mary into feeding "those dreadful brutes" the evening she arrived.
Thurber's mother borrowed sixteen dogs from the neighborhood street, and hid them in the cellar, so at feeding time, she had Mary set the food down in front of the cellar door and open it up:
When the door opened and they could see the light of freedom and smell the odor of food, they gave tongue like a pack of hunting hounds. Aunt Mary got the door halfway open and the bodies of three of the largest dogs pushed it the rest of the way. There was a snarling, barking, yelping swirl of yellow and white, black and tan, gray and brindle as the dogs tumbled into the kitchen, skidded on the linoleum, sent the food flying from the plate, and backed Aunt Mary into a corner. "Great God Almighty!" she screamed. "It's a dog factory!"
--- R. W. Feathers
Alianor True, Editor
(Island Press)Michael Thoele takes us along with smokejumpers called the Wyoming Hotshots who are shipped off to fight a fire named Brewer. "Forest fires," he tells us, "like new ships and new babies, are christened..." The firefighters get dropped behind the lines, are to attack the north flank of Brewer, but then something goes wrong.
It is June, 1988, the temperature is 104°, and they are instructed to create a fireline to stop the flames. There's a strange stillness, "the spooky calm before the monumental blowup." The fire starts to surround them, and moves so quickly into a horseshoe that they are forced to pull out their emergency tent shelters. These are protective devices contained in a "yellow pouch, not much larger than a box of chocolates."
It seems almost too small to yield what it contains --- a tiny, mansized aluminum foil pup tent, a floorless, frameless, poleless, doorless pop-up shelter that a trained fire-fighter should be able to deploy in twenty seconds. A bonded inner lining of heat resistant glass fiber lends the foil strength, so it will not tear like a chewing gum wrapper. Even so, the aluminum pup tent's walls are thinner than a firefighter's shirt, and the whole improbable structure weighs less than four pounds.
The nineteen of them wrestle into their tents, the fire sweeps over them --- with more than 1000° of intense heat --- and, miraculously, only one of their number is severely burned.
Thoele's story, drawn from Fireline: Summer Battles in the West --- is one of the best in this collection. There are twenty-four in all, including Cherokee and Miwok fire tales from long ago, excerpts of journals from the Lewis & Clark expedition, a passage from Thoreau and two from John Muir --- and one from Mark Twain that is distinctive because it presents us with a picture of Lake Tahoe before civilization moved in (no human sounds; brilliant cold water; watching trout moving idly a hundred feet underwater). The casual way he describes, with no regret, the fire that accidentally escapes and burns away an entire neighborhood of trees and underbrush is very 19th Century.
One of the themes of Wildfire concerns the depredations of Smokey the Bear. The policy of putting out all timberland fires violates Nature's dictum that "forests evolved with fire and that, therefore, fire has a place in forests." Ted Williams claims the culprit came from "a truly tragic forest fire" in 1942 --- the one that occurred in the movie Bambi. It was, according to a commentator,
the most important document in American cultural history bearing on the subject of fire management policy.
§ § §
There are some selections in Wildfire that don't quite cut the mustard. The New Yorker's John McPhee weighs in with his usual catalogue shoppinglist essay, in this case, shrubs on the side of a hill:
buckwheat, burroweed, lotus and sage, deerweed, bindweed, yerba santa...morning glories, Canterbury bells, tree tobacco, miner's lettuce...manzanita, California lilac, scrub oak, chamise
making us wonder if McPhee, like the Victorians, was paid by the word.
One of the most joyous passages is Edward Abbey's journal from his summer as a fire lookout. He tells of grizzly bears and deer and mosquitoes and owls and what it is like to be in a watchtower when lightning strikes:
Our skin prickles, our hair stands up. We hear a fizzing noise above us, on the roof of the cabin where the lightning rod sticks up. A crackling sound, like a burning fuse. I know what's coming now, and an instant later it comes, a flash that fills the room with blue-white light, accompanied simultaneously by a jarring crash, as if the entire cabin had been dropped from the sky upon our rocky ridge.
Abbey's style is easy-going and charming. He says that "Bears are omnivorous, have no pride at all, will eat anything, even authors." At times, he gives us touches of philosophy,
Men have died and worms have eaten them, but not for love.
His description of the loneliness of the watch, his tales of others who stay for a summer and never return, reminds us of one of our friends who had a similar job. When he arrived at the fire-watch tower, his first task was to scrape all the paint off the windows. The previous occupant had decamped, but not before painting all the windows black, and leaving a note that said, "There is nothing left to see."--- Amy Willets, MA
Think I Did
A Season of Survival
In Two Acts
(Basic Books)Larry Woiwode lives to hell and gone in south-west North Dakota, and what he offers us here is an excellent guide on what not to do in the winter if you live to hell and gone in south-west North Dakota. First, don't turn down an empty side road at dusk, one you're unfamiliar with --- driving a big American car with no chains when a snow storm is about to hit, especially if you are dressed in a light summer shirt. Also, don't try to turn around so the back wheels will end up in a ditch filled with ice when you are five miles from civilization.
Then, if you order a wood-burning furnace for your home, set it up exactly as the company recommends; don't bring in a local plumber. Get batteries to keep the water circulating if the local power goes off, because if your 440 gallons of water freezes in the middle of January, you'll have a cracked block that's going to beat anything you might come up with in your big American car.
These bits of North Dakota lore are fine and dandy, but unfortunately, Woiwode mixes them up with these spooks, heavies that keep popping up, screwing up this otherwise mildly entertaining guide to survival in the great plains, spooks named W. H. Auden, James Wright, William Maxwell, John Cheever, Robert Frost, Robert Bly, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, John Updike, and William Shawn. These are all people that Woiwode has met, or wants to meet, or has spoken to, or has passed on the streets of New York, people who invariably stop him to tell him what a great writer he is.
Once, his agent told him to get in touch with James Wright: "Just call him. Jim loves your book." Jim Wright turns out to be a bit of a name-dropper too. He tells Woiwode, "When I finished my first book I showed it to Wystan Auden." Not W. H., mind you. Wystan.
Woiwode manages to run into Mailer in a subway stop in Manhattan. Mailer asks, "How's the book doing?" This gives Woiwode the chance to let Mailer (and the hapless reader) know that it's in its twelfth printing. "Good for you!" says Mailer. "Give me a break!" says the reader.
The acme is a name-drop triple header of the century: Woiwode is  talking to William Maxwell in  the offices of The New Yorker magazine when  --- mirabile dictu! ---William Shawn just happens to pop in:
"Ay, yes, Mr. Woiwode," he said, pronouncing it right...."A wonderful story."
It's too bad that Mailer coöpted the title Advertisements for Myself. It would be a natural for this egregious bit of puffery.--- Lolita Lark