Monster of God

David Quammen

Read April-May 2005

Save for epic natural events (floods, tornados, etc.) and man-made weapons of destruction (such as automobiles), what dangers do those of us living in the first world truly face? Just this past week, I read of a Central European farmer who was killed when the cow he was milking fell on him. This was reported in what might less politely be called the comedy section of the news. Tragedy is the new farce.

In such a world, man-eaters remain one of the few means left to jog our imaginations. We can offer the usual pop-psychological explanations for their hold over the human psyche: evolutionary conditioning, literary references, or just plain feral fear. No doubt, the few elements of nature that continue to resist us and remind us that we don't top the food-chain are worthy of our respect. It helps that they are often majestic animals: to survive the effects of humans on their habitats and on their being, they would have to be sleek machines indeed. It would, at any rate, be well to study them.

David Quammen is one of the most enthralling naturalist writers I've read. His experience in the field and grasp of biology are complemented by an enviably fluid prose style and genuine literary bent. I can think of few writers whom I'd more like to have take on a difficult writing task. Even when he doesn't quite succeed, as in this case, his effort still exceeds almost everyone else's reach.

Quammen covers a good range of territory, and reflects his usual broad range of concerns. He is unabashedly what we would call an ``environmentalist'', but he's too smart to not understand the trade-offs that drive his business; he's equally at home in the world of politics, even of political perversions such as Ceaucescu. Only very rarely does his anger at our relationship with man-eaters come through.

Set against this are several weaknesses. There's simply too much territory Quammen didn't cover, too many species that would have made for equally compelling reading. He writes too little about the lives of the creatures themselves. I would also have liked a little more of the pyrotechnic flair I've come to associate with him. In other words, Quammen just isn't Quammen enough.

Less flatteringly, there are two real problems with the book. He sometimes struggles to find his plot, even starting in one continent and ending in another to wrap up a search; while this may accurately reflect his own quest, the reader could have been spared some of this meandering. In addition, the book ends on a somewhat ramblingly pessimistic note about population explosion and the eventual disappearance of man-eaters. His literary devices fail and, though Quammen is too smart to play the straight Malthusian, his unhappiness seems to be a mask for some deeper sentiment that he doesn't let escape, probably in the interest of dispassionate reporting; sadly, his approach fails here.

Setting aside these flaws, though, when the book's on song, it's simply compelling. How often does a book on biology compell you to read Gilgamesh? Powerful passages like this are evidence that Quammen may be muted, but he hasn't lost his touch.