Carrier, among other occupations, is a reseacher for feel-good stories on Ira Glass’ “This American Life,” a well-known NPR program that profiles events and people that generally reflect the more progressive and upbeat facets of the national consciousness. While Carrier may be progressive, generally he is not upbeat. His starkly realistic, sparse yet elegant style reflects a kind of manic edge the author seems to have learned to balance upon, allowing Carrier to take his readers on a peculiarly American trip in a strange land where Richard Brautigan and Barry Lopez meet.
Like other talented American essayists, Carrier’s work is largely autobiographical. Running after Antelope begins with an idealized childhood memory of hunting lizards, rabbits and snakes with the author’s older brother, and ends with the two living out the book’s metaphorical title in the Utah desert, chasing antelope as adults in an artful expression of hope and desire. In lesser hands, such esoteric, metaphorical ideals might get lost in the bargain basement New Age section, but Carrier makes this peculiar obsession in ways that few other writers are able of. In between the wild metaphors are sharply sad, humorous, outrageous, gutsy tales of Carrier’s version of “This American Life.” The author’s years as a hitchhiking vagabond and subsequent clumsy yet passionate adventurer in less spectacular venues like work, married life, and family relationships lend his stories an easy realism.
But it’s in the juxtaposition of common experience and wild dreams where Carrier thrives. How do we humans reconcile dreams and desires, the sometimes daffy notion to explain ourselves, with a natural world that seems at best indifferent, and a human world that can be inexplicably violent and cruel? It’s a big question, one that Carrier chooses to tackle in some uniquely oddball American ways.
First, there’s the author’s restlessness to find a career that suits him. Carrier recounts his experiences as a carpenter, social worker, freelance radio producer, and reluctant travel writer with a flair for insight into human nature and an honest account of his own shortcomings (mainly brushes with abject poverty).
His stint as a carpenter working for his younger brother is especially hilarious. Carrier is faced with the realization that a lot of carpenters—at least those who work for his brother—are fundamentalist Christians. “When you see something happen once,” writes Carrier, “ it’s an accident, when you see it happen twice, it’s a coincidence, when you see it happen three or more times it’s science, and science demands theories...And so I would ask my work mates questions like ‘Was Jesus a framer or a finish man? It makes a difference, don’t you think? Was he the lead carpenter, or just a laborer?’ Or I’d make up stuff like, ‘I heard that when Jesus made furniture he never used glue in the joints, that he’d just touch them and they’d hold forever.’... I changed my theory and decided that religion is something that people use not only because they want to connect with a sense of their spiritual existence, but to bring a sense of justice to their social existence...at some point I started to realize that we all had the same basic problem: we were all slaves, unhappy slaves. It wasn’t a pretty thing to see.”
If Carrier is sharp-witted when he notes the foibles of human nature, he is just as gracious when describing the life-affirming qualities of his fellow humans. Carrier shadows his older brother as the latter pursues his Ph.D in animal morphology, studying the ways in which his brother the scientist creates and tests theories about how animals, particularly mammals, have evolved cardiovascular systems that allow greater capacities for endurance.
Noting that the Greeks and Hindus have the same words for breath and spirit, Carrier contends that his brother is also a storyteller: “I’ve realized my brother is writing his own creation myth, although it’s couched in evolutionary terms, since he is a vertebrae morphologist and studies the evolution of breathing...Any theory of human evolution, any story that tries to explain why we became different from the apes, is automatically a story of our own most basic nature. And for me, a story of our nature needs to ring true and be like a key that solves all kinds of mysteries... That is why the running theory intrigues me. It says we became upright in order to breathe better, in order to increase our stamina and endurance. In order that we might have more spirit and consciousness.”
Carrier notes in several places that running with antelope is not simply a literary convenience or some desert mystic’s pipe dream. Anthropological records of tribes in Central and South America describe hunters who would pursue quarry over days and sometimes hundreds of miles before their prey collapsed in exhaustion, giving the hunter an easy kill.
Still, the image of the cigarette-smoking Carrier and his brother, afflicted with a pulmonary disease, engaged in the futility of chasing antelope is at once sad and funny both literally and as metaphor. Carrier paints so vividly the beauty that we’ll never find the answer to some of life’s really big mysteries in time makes Running after Antelope a worthwhile read. #