The Character Issue 

Barry Lopez and the evolution of eco-friendly fiction

Too much of nature writing these days seems to have devolved into the sort of banality that might make even the casually thoughtful reader want to flip off the next SUV with a “Nature Bats Last” sticker attached to it. More than a few eco-authors so tediously moralize the ecological sins of the modern age that a Big Mac and several hours of televangelism seem a viable alternative, while others contrive nature to be some extension of their own personality, a sanctuary in which to lick existential wounds, or cultivate the enlightenment the rest of the world lacks, so that the reader may wish the protagonist would choke on a prayer flag or be beaten to death by a gang of sherpas.

In light of such unsavory developments, it’s a pleasant task to read the latest work of one of the old masters of nature literature, Barry Lopez, in a collection of short stories, Light Action in the Caribbean. Lopez has carved out a unique if not somewhat precarious habitat in this increasingly crowded genre. He may be familiar as the author of several longer works of non-fiction, Of Wolves and Men and Arctic Dreams among the more recognized. But he has worked concurrently as a fiction writer, concentrating almost exclusively on short stories. Like other prolific short story writers, the effort has produced some readable, some forgettable, and a few riveting, mind-expanding, breath-taking nuggets that can be read and recommended to others shamelessly again and again.

What makes Lopez so successful on occasion is his uncanny ability to chart the habitat of his imagination by proposing to the reader in a beguiling way to consider moral and spiritual questions leached out of the sky and soil of the natural world. The characters inhabiting these stories for the most part approach such questions without seeming too precious or preachy, a balancing act as enticing to watch as that of a crow swaying atop a Douglas Fir in a Pacific storm.

“If we are going to trade the priceless for the common, I want to know exactly what the terms are,” claims a master cartographer in one story called “The Mappist.” This seems to be a recurrent theme in this collection, as well as Lopez’s long-standing artistic obsession with the human perception of light and space, a topic he approaches with a photographer’s eye. And Lopez here again floats the notion that the breadth of human emotion, the unanswerable mysteries of relationships of every kind may be hidden in the startling beauty, the quiet indifference of specific places.

These ideas are pursued, however, in most of Lopez’s work. What sets Light Action apart from the author’s other fiction is that these stories are only incidentally “environmental,” a genre-busting development in the evolution of literature that seems to free both reader and writer to more widely explore a terrain of ideas. The title story, for instance, contains a final scene of such inexplicable, quick and graphic violence that the title seems a prank worthy of a Carl Hiaasen paperback.

Other stories freely examine the world and the interaction of creatures in it from the viewpoint of Cuban nationalists, cowboys, prisoners, scholars, migrant laborers, and itinerant travelers, an expansion from the narratives of Lopez past, in which the world was too frequently viewed through the eyes and of a conveniently observant and wise field biologist.

Where this diversification breaks down on occasion is in Lopez’s attempt to create a widely varied cast characters for which the reader can feel some sympathy or engagement. A lot of his short stories are written in first person, which can create a tendency for an author to be more of an actor. This works fine when a writer acts convincingly, but in two or three instances in Light Action, the acting job was unconvincing enough to distract from the stories at hand. (It’s hard to be both a cowboy and then a Cuban nationalist, after all.)

There are two or three stories here, however, that don’t fail in that or any other sense. They richly depict the good, bad and ugly of what we might mean by being in the world, with its sad endings, solitary longings and occasional epiphanies. In this sense, after reading Light Action, the reader may recall why art and literature are around in the first place, a notion that may allow both hands to stay on the wheel the next time that SUV rockets by, and better yet, a notion that may afford you a few more minutes’ browsing down at the bookstore.

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