In this Indiana, bird bird bird is the word

June 6, 2013

Snapper by Brian KimberlingNathan Lochmueller narrates a wildly amusing story in Brian Kimberling’s debut novel, Snapper. He’s a bird researcher in state forests located in south central Indiana. He’s no ornithologist – it’s circumstance that puts him in the woods at 5 a.m. calculating nest heights and terrain slope as well as variations in songbird migration times. In his personal life, he haplessly pursues the predictably unfaithful Lola, a girl he’s known since college and who lives next door to Gerald, Nathan’s boss.

This fictional story is told in 13 chapters that bring us Polaroid scenes from Nathan’s adventures. What predominates is the oddity of what’s taking place – a snapping turtle chopping off the thumb of Nathan’s best friend; a German shepherd that yodels and one day retrieves a human bone from a cemetery; and highway patrol officers stopping at a diner in Santa Claus, Indiana, to answer kid’s letters to St. Nick. Meanwhile, Nathan crisscrosses the southern counties counting birds for the Department of Natural Resources and observing bald eagles for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He encounters hostile armed men and a killer tornado while on the job. He also dabbles in sabotage, attempting to save hardwood trees from logging companies by eliminating the small dot on the bark that identifies a tree as a candidate for take-down. Nathan does this by carving Lola’s name over the dot.

Nathan’s relationship with Lola is vague and lacks a strong narrative thread. She makes occasional appearances that don’t mean much. There’s also little development to Nathan’s life – the chapters tend to read more like vignettes than a plot with events rising to a crucial turning point. Nathan’s smart retorts, wit and cynicism, as well as his clever observations, are what make this story so highly entertaining. Each chapter engages us less with wonder about Nathan’s life and more with his enjoyable storytelling. And then there’s southern Indiana, a colorful character in its own right with its townships, mudscapes and tropical-like forests; a place where national debates are carried out on bumper stickers and highway signs.

Eventually Nathan loses his bird-watching job due to an accident that impairs his hearing. He finds employment in Vermont at a raptor rehabilitation center. When he returns to Indiana to show his British girlfriend where he grew up, we understand why he claims Indiana as his beloved lifelong confusion in this enchanting and very fun new novel.

Acknowledgement: The title of this blog post is a nod to The Trashmen’s 1960’s “Surfin’ Bird.”

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