The art of fiction, if you’re looking for it, has always seemed to me to lie in the neighborhood of the human condition. A facility with language and structured storytelling, a schooling in the great traditions, a talent for seeing forests through the trees, necessary elements all; But the final measure of art, the pith and gist of it, is in how originally and well a fiction manages to show us ourselves. Does it feel true. The good books depict the guy next door, the great ones depict every-man. You take a cutout of a human being, flesh him with pity, pathos, regret, arrogance, ego, intellect, fear, courage, anomie, apathy, ambition, then arc a few thousands volts of plot through him, give him something to do, lurch him to life. Build him a bride. Watch the inevitable rupture, retaliation, reconciliation. If there is some consoling structure placed on the narrative (a beginning, middle, end), if there is a note of redemption that we can displace into our own woefully unstructured and unredemptive lives, so much the better.
Bear with me. As I write this, I’m sitting in a chilled cabin in Montana’s Missouri River Breaks. The clouds, as they blow past, are low enough to drag fog through the pine trees. They keep pattering out brief drops of rain. In this country, where the dust in the road can rise past your axles, you hold out your hand for moisture the way cancer patients receive water from Lourdes. I’ve been awake since 5:30 this morning. My knees have a tendon-ache from recent days scrabbling around eroded coulees, bow in hand. We’ve been seeing some elk, hearing a few bugles. This morning, however, hiking into a stiff, chilled wind, every living creature with any sense was at least one county removed. There was time for distraction. It occurred to me, shivering under a pine tree, that if the above, admittedly shaky, formula has some truth to it (literature = art of the human condition), why haven’t we seen a worthwhile literature of big game hunting? Here’s an essential and important act, a distillation of universal truths (red in tooth and claw, eating and being eaten, the trophic movement of energy mouth to mouth) and we don’t have a body of writing that might allow us to adequately gaze back at ourselves. We have a literature of fishing. Goes back at least to Dame Juliana (15th c.), takes in Izaak Walton, Hemingway. And wingshooting, while less conspicuously established, could nevertheless build you a decent bookshelf. Maybe start out with Turgenev, go on up through Corey Ford, George Bird Evans, Guy de la Valdene. But if you shake the same sieve over big game hunting, you arrive at thin gruel indeed. Offhand, I can recall only one truly exceptional piece of fiction that deals with big game hunting in a thematically serious way: William Faulkner’s novella, The Bear. For my money, after The Sound and the Fury, it’s the best thing that miserable, whiskey-soaked genius ever wrote. Hemingway gave us one pretty good short story (The Short Happy Life of Francis Macumber), and a bad memoir, Green Hills of Africa, while Isak Denisen described some good shooting in Out of Africa. You might even make a fragile case that Moby Dick is less about fishing than it is about hunting. There are also an undeniable number of good essayists out there, most of them owing enormous debts to the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset and his short treatise, Meditations on Hunting. Ted Kerasote, David Petersen and Richard Nelson continue on in Ortega’s tradition, as does (to a lesser extent) Rick Bass. But, again (and goddamnit!), where’s the fiction?
For one thing – and I’m just thinking out loud here – it seems that (at least in America) big game hunting has largely been a plebeian pursuit, a pastime of the provincial masses. I say this in full awareness of the organized horse and hound traditions in Europe (which anyway qualify as hunting about the same way that croquet qualifies as a contact sport). By and large, particularly in America, the history of big game hunting has been a history of subsistence. Bringing home the bacon in the most literal sense, either for your own table or someone else’s (market hunting). It’s only been in the last 150 years or so, that hunting has taken hold as an elective pursuit (think of a young Teddy Roosevelt posing for a photo in tasseled buckskins). Meanwhile, the pursuit of literature – Lord Byron to Virginia Woolf; Cicero to Voltaire – has been the privilege of the effete elite. Until recently, they were the only ones who could afford it. So, hunting and the elite, and never the twain should meet. Maybe that’s part of it.
Also, point number two, if you’re a writer, maybe it’s just too damned hard, using hunting as a backdrop. I’m throwing out ideas here. If the work of the novel is the human condition (best seen in one person’s relationship to another), and if big game hunting is about the relationship of a hunter to his prey (which it is), then, from the writer’s perspective, how do you possibly approach it? Hunting becomes an obstacle to good fiction, not a catalyst. As opposed to say, fly-fishing, or even bird hunting (both of which tend to be social activities, with plenty of possibilities for sharp dialogue), big game hunting is, by and large, a solitary endeavor. Unless you’re Dostoyevsky, you simply can’t write compelling fiction about a single, reclusive man.
And finally (one last shot in the dark), perhaps the cultural bias against hunting has been such that the finest American writers (who have, by and large, been products of an Eastern Ivy league establishment well-removed from the dirt, blood and sawdust of essential living) just don’t give a shit. Or if they do, they’re so insulated from the life-truths embodied by the act of hunting (think of the more absurd elements of the animal rights movement – those guys who follow around hunters, banging pots and pans together) that if they were to ever write about hunting it would be in the most negative possible ways. Every morning, they sip their coffee watching tame whitetail deer browse through the azaleas.
But Faulkner did it. And in my idle moments, I’ve more than once gone at his novella with the avid curiosity of a grave robber. (If you haven’t read The Bear, please immediately shut down your computer, drive, walk or run to the nearest family bookstore and lay down twelve bucks for a paperback copy of Go Down Moses; On the way, flagellate yourself with a knotted plow line in penance for your negligence.) Among many other things, The Bear is the story of young Ike McCaslin, a boy born into what passes for Mississippi aristocracy. To the extent that Ike comes to share the hunting camp, and to learn his way through the Big Woods, The Bear is a coming of age narrative about a child growing into a romanticized version of manhood. The woods, while steadily being whittled away by railroad crews and lumber companies, still retain a vestigial wildness. They are capable of harboring within their depths an enormous, apparently indestructible Bear. And so it also becomes a pursuit narrative, with a hint of revenge. It’s also a nod toward the academy, toward the thesis writers. The Bear (nine toed, and nicknamed Old Ben) is one of Faulkner’s very few overt and intentional literary symbols. As long as the bear’s alive, there’s going to be some wilderness left in the Big Woods.
Most of all, however, it’s just a good hunting story. The characters (noble and self-sacrificing, drunken and incompetent, impassioned and misguided) would all like nothing more than to nail that bear’s hide to the wall. Once this ambition is realized, of course (“He went back to the camp one more time before the lumber company moved in and began to cut the timber.”), the characters realize that this wasn’t necessarily what they wanted after all. The fact the hunt, while superficially romanticized, also serves as vehicle for the destruction of the wilderness, undermines not a whit the final impact of the art. Faulkner wasn’t writing a propaganda tract. He was writing the human heart. And in order to make that heart complete, in order to fulfill his obligation as an artist, he had to include the Hunt, with all its ambiguities, uncertainties, failures, triumphs, and elegiac senses of loss.
And maybe this is finally some part of why there isn’t a formalized literature of hunting. Perhaps the Hunt (as an idea, as a sensibility, as an emotional construct) is already so utterly pervasive that we finally have nothing but a literature of hunting. The chase, the blood, the ambition, the equivocation, the loss, it saturates every artful word ever written. What else is there to be said?