What to Read Next (No. 150): some outdoorsy fiction

One of my favorite genres to read is outdoors/adventure/survival writing. Into Thin Air, A Walk in the Woods, The Lost City of Z, The Indifferent Stars Above . . . the titles I’ve enjoyed are too numerous to list. While most of what I read along those lines is non-fiction, there are great outdoorsy novels to be devoured as well. In today’s newsletter, I’m featuring a few I’ve finished recently.

In one my favorite book lists that I’ve compiled, I wrote that in the Western genre of literature, “The land itself often plays a role as a main character.” The climate, the topography, the flora and fauna—they all play important parts in these types of books. The landscape takes on powerful characteristics of both hero and villain, while also of course maintaining a sense of cold impartiality. The land isn’t rooting for any of our human characters, but it’s not trying to harm them either. It just is. These novels below give the land its due.

Let’s do it.

P.S. Next week I’m doing my best reads of 2020 so that you have a few weeks to do some Christmas shopping. My list is guaranteed to have good gift ideas.

Telegraph Days by Larry McMurtry

Photo by Jeremy Anderberg on August 31, 2020. Image may contain: cloud, sky, outdoor and nature, text that says 'B LARRY CMURT TELEGRAP DAYS DA'.
I finished this book while visiting my folks in Canon City, CO. The backdrop and the book cover turned out to perfectly align and I couldn’t resist the photo op.

Published: 2006 | Pages: 405

“There’s no power like outlawry to heat up public curiosity.”

McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove series are among the finest books I’ve ever read. I’ve been nervous to read other McMurtry titles, though. Could the characters possibly live up to McCrae and Call?

While young and spunky Nellie Courtright isn’t Augustus McCrae, the cast in Telegraph Days is quite fun and McMurtry provides a rollicking standalone story that kept me well-entertained for a few days.

Nellie and her brother Jackson are orphaned and make their way to a forgetful little desert town. Sister snags a job as the town telegrapher while brother backs his way into fame by getting extraordinarily lucky with a six-shooter. Nellie then turns writer and cataloguer of courageous deeds, which brings her all over the west—Dodge City, the O.K. Corral, and everywhere else that brought itself infamy in the 1800s.

Honestly, the story itself isn’t all that memorable. Rather, it’s the feeling of the thing that sucks you in and stays with you. It’s the same thing that pulled me into the Lonesome Dove series almost immediately—the empathy that McMurtry puts into his characters is unrivaled. They’re realists about the harsh natural world around them, and yet romantics when it comes to human nature:

“If you want to be part of a human community you have to suffer fools—patiently, if not gladly—and you must practice civility as best you can. . . . the tribe of human beings is never likely to be crowded with Aristotles.”

Telegraph Days won’t be among my absolute favorite reads of the year, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, have no qualms about broadly recommending it.

The River by Peter Heller

Published: 2019 | Pages: 253

The Dog Stars was among my favorite reads of last year. In the time since, some of the scenes of Hig flying around in his small plane above a world being retaken by nature have cemented into my literary memory.

So I had high hopes for The River, Heller’s newest novel. Set in Canada, two college friends, Jack and Wynn, are in the midst of a long canoe journey deep in the wilds. One night, they spot the ominous orange glow of a fire—a big one. Can they outrun it? And warn a few others on the river along the way? In itself, that might be a great story, but then Heller throws in a thriller-ish twist that didn’t live up to what I hoped it would be. Jack and Wynn have to figure out not only surviving the fire and the river, but another threat too. It’s in this kaleidoscope of events that the characters fall a little flat.

And yet, Heller delivers some of the finest natural writing you’ll ever come across, which was also the case with The Dog Stars. Canoeing, fly fishing, cooking foraged foods over a fire, even the whirling currents of a powerful river are written about with the grace and expertise that only a true outdoorsman could bring. That’s certainly the bright spot of this novel.

I wanted to like The River more than I did. I kept hanging on, hoping for a satisfying ending that unfortunately never arrived. It’s not a bad novel by any means, I just expected more. If you’re intrigued nonetheless, check it out from the library.

The Bear by Andrew Krivak

Published: 2020 | Pages: 221

“You’re hungry, I know, said the dreambear, but you need to be hungry for more than food. More than sleep. . . . Be hungry for what you have yet to do while you’re awake.”

It’s nearly impossible to not immediately think of this book as a parallel story to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. It’s a fast read set in a post-apocalyptic world, the dialogue is sort of clipped in that nobody is getting into long monologues, and the two primary characters are a father and his child.

Father and daughter are alone in the world—the last of the humans. Whatever caused the end of humanity (it’s not dwelled upon in the story) has not destroyed the natural world though. These two live a caveman-like existence with just a few remnants of the old world: some tools, a few books, a mother’s comb.

The first half is sort of boilerplate survival/outdoorsy writing. Father does his best to teach young daughter the ways of living off the land. It’s beautifully done, but not terribly unique—like I said, at this point it was pretty much The Road without the marauding baby-eaters.

But the second half makes things rather interesting. In her teenage years, the girl embarks on a long journey to the ocean to procure some salt. After a run-in with the brutal face of tragedy, the girl gets some unlikely help from a bear in finding her way home. To me, the bear seemed to be a God-like character, though not in an obvious Aslan way. It’s a really intriguing and moving relationship they forge, and the girl ultimately comes to realize she’s beyond capable of forging her own path.

The Bear was a memorable read that offered a lot of beautiful (and detailed) meditations on survival, memory, and the natural world. I liked The Road better, if forced to make the comparative judgment call, but this is certainly a worthwhile novel.

That’s all for me this week. I sure hope you all had a good Thanksgiving and can get in some good reading this weekend yet. I’m devouring Ruth Ware’s One by One.