Steven Rinella has carved himself a juicy slice of the carnivorous life. The Michigan-born, UM-educated writer's well-received previous books (The Scavenger's Guide to Haute Cuisine and American Buffalo), each with substantive hunter-gatherer components, led to a stint as host of Travel Channel's "The Wild Within" and Rinella's current gig hosting The Sportsman Channel's "MeatEater." Judging by the titles, that latter engagement would seem to be the tie-in impetus behind Rinella's latest book.
It's an odd book, not least because of that title. Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter (Spiegel and Grauis) is only peripherally about eating meat, as distinct from hunting it, and readers looking for a polemical response to, say, Jonathan Safran Foer's recent vegetarian manifesto Eating Animals will find slim pickings. Nor does Rinella spend more than a few pages building the case in defense of hunting. When he does, he can come off as overly glib: "If hunters really did get their jollies by killing animals," he writes, countering one straw nonhunter argument, "why would we go through the hassle of trying to find wild and unpredictable game animals under sometimes exceedingly difficult environmental circumstances when we could just volunteer at the Humane Society and kill a few dozen dogs and cats in an afternoon, or get a job at an Iowa slaughterhouse and kill a couple hundred cattle a day in air-conditioned comfort?" If "air-conditioned comfort" is Rinella's take on one of the most dangerous jobs in America, it's probably safe to say he's never worked in a slaughterhouse.
Adding to the book's hybridized curiosity is a color photo insert of Rinella, family and friends hoisting 16 pages worth of dead deer, fox, elk, caribou, Dall sheep, and sundry fish and birds. Ten of the book's 11 chapters end with a few pages of "tasting notes" regarding black bear, mountain lion, etc. Squirrel doesn't taste like chicken, it turns out, but looks quite a bit like it. You can almost hear an editor asking for proper recipes, and you can almost see Rinella rolling his eyes.
At its over-appended core, Meat Eater is the episodic autobiography of a boy who grew up idolizing Daniel Boone, tried to make a youthful living as a latter-day trapper, experienced hunting as a ritual inseparable from the binding rites of family and seems never to have killed an animaland the guy's a virtual one-man abattoirwithout learning something in the process. If there's little in the way of thesis to Meat Eater, there is much in the way of story, and as Rinella notes early on, hunting stories are "the oldest and most widespread form of story on earth."
Rinella now lives in Brooklyn, where he's found no shortage of fellow citizens to whom hunting appears an exotic, anachronistic, perhaps reprehensible tradition. As a son who grew up hunting because his father hunted, and as the new father of a son whom he hopes to introduce to hunting's many joys, this urban view gives Rinella pause. Hunt-happy Montanans may or may not be surprised to learn that only five percent of contemporary Americans still hunt, down from seven percent just a decade ago. Why, Rinella wonders, is hunting on the decline?
The answer won't be found in Meat Eater, but one needn't look very far to come up with a hypothesis. In addition to all the usual suspects (the technological disconnect between many city-dwellers and the sources of their food, limited access to public hunting grounds), there's the behavior of individual hunters. Rinella touches on this in Chapter Six, in which he confesses a childish indiscretion involving an otter and an illegal snare trap. "On the day that I killed the otter," he writes, "I'd accomplished something else, as well: I'd become an asshole."
Too many huntersMontana reader-hunters excepted, of courseare assholes. I'm thinking of the hunters I grew up with on deer leases in Texas, who use electronically timed corn feeders to train trophy bucks to arrive at their predetermined opening-day doom at 7 a.m. sharp. I'm thinking of the hunters I ran into in the wild and scenic lower canyons of the Rio Grande this spring, zipping up and down the remote river in a jet boat with a sawed-off aoudad sheep's head strapped to the bow, leaving a glittering string of discarded Coors Light cans in their wake. I've never seen Rinella's shows, but anyone who's ever flipped through the low-budget hunting programs on a slow TV day will recognize the hyperventilating kill-thrill that characterizes hunting's lowest common denominator. Giddy bloodlust may not be hunting's driving evolutionary force, but it's real, and it isn't a character trait likely to draw many converts.
To hunting's credit, and his own, Steven Rinella is not that asshole. Meat Eater shows him to be a thoughtful harvester of wild game, more attuned to conservation than to Boone and Crockett scores and not so self-righteous that he fails to recognize the quandaries and questions that the hunting life regularly presents. Killing meat is a complicated moral endeavor; sustenance aside, therein lies its claim to the consideration of serious writers.
There's no shortage of guides who can show you where to hunt. Rinella is emerging as one of the best at explaining why.