Following Mark Twain’s adage, “Write what you know about,” the world of fiction might be neatly divided into two camps. There are writers who research a subject extensively and manage to write intimate, detailed, vivid prose born of whatever spark might be ignited in the imagination by hours spent in library stacks. Then there are writers whose work is purely imaginative. Such authors tend to create characters who are at least loosely autobiographical, with faces and places written as an amalgamation of personal experiences and aesthetic preferences.
Without getting bogged down in the finer points or drawbacks of either genre, Dave Foreman’s first crack at fiction, The Lobo Outback Funeral Home, falls plainly within the bounds of biographical fiction. Foreman, a co-founder of Earth First!, has attracted controversy from inside and outside environmental circles. In the course of a 30-year career in the land conservation movement, Foreman has been beaten by pro-logging thugs, investigated by the FBI, acquitted in a federal trial over “monkey-wrenching” and reviled by constituents for abandoning his radical roots. The truth of all these adventures may be stranger than fiction, a possibility that might be elucidated in an upcoming non-fiction book.
In the meantime, the protagonist in this story, forty-something Jack Hunter, is like Foreman: a life-long conservationist who has made the Southwest his home. Like Foreman, Hunter began his career as an environmental lobbyist in Washington D.C. and became disillusioned with the bureaucracy there. And like Foreman, Hunter seems unable to avoid headlong collisions with controversy and conflict after departing Washington for greener pastures.
Unlike Foreman, Hunter wishes to retire from the activist life, relegating himself to a quiet existence as a farrier (a shoe-er of horses) and explorer of a nearby beloved wilderness area. Of course, things get complicated. Hunter falls in love with a fiercely intelligent and passionate wildlife biologist, Dr. MaryAnne McClellan, finds a breeding population of wolves in his wilderness area and runs afoul of rednecks and monied interests that have an anti-environmental stranglehold on local politics. This leads to sex in the wilderness, brawls in bars, and duels with local hicks and bureaucrats, borrowing intelligently from a fiction formula perfected by Ed Abbey, John D. MacDonald and Carl Hiaasen.
Foreman’s passion for American wilderness is transparent, an obsession that both helps and hinders this novel. His love and intimate familiarity with Southwestern wildlands is finely woven into the scenery of the book in a visceral way that makes you want to hop onto I-15 south and drive until you find the landscape that matches the prose. Even Foreman’s description of enchiladas at two-dollar taco stands or green chile burgers and cold Mexican beers are enticing enough to elicit a Pavlovian desire for a greasy, spicy meal eaten under an umbrella shading a blazing desert sun.
While the scenery is great, Foreman’s zeal to promote the wilderness cause in real life presents some literary glitches. Anyone not familiar with the procedure for designating, documenting and protecting wilderness areas, appealing timber sales, organizing protests, or lobbying federal and state bureaucrats on behalf of environmental causes can skip substantial portions of the middle of the book, since that's what the good guys in Lobo Outback are up to. The same goes for a long lecture from Hunter’s love interest McClellan, which in between love scenes reads like a Petersen’s field guide, providing accurate, detailed bird, plant and animal factoids that nonetheless take some of the wind out of the sails driving the plot.
The ending of Lobo Outback is likely to provide fodder for deconstuctionists of the Ed Abbey/Dave Foreman school of Redneck Conservationists, which has been criticized for not being as generous in matters of human ecology as those concerning land and animal ecology. Foreman has promoted the book as one that examines the consequences of shirking commitment to people and places. Hunter embodies this abdication of duty and is directly challenged by his lover and friends on his figurative fainting before the duel, yet Foreman balks at making this shortcoming his protagonist’s tragic flaw. To the contrary, Hunter emerges as the hero, nursing only the existential wounds he recognizes as illusory. It is Hunter’s MaryAnne who pays a rather gruesome physical price for her lover’s ambivalence, an irony Hunter rails against in predictable cowboy ways, guns blazing and fists swinging.
Morality aside, Lobo Outback is an entertaining read, a contemporary Western that depicts in engaging ways some fantastic wild places and the increasingly divided culture charged with protecting them.