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Books: The Woods Divided

Review, June 1997

Books: The Woods Divided
By Miles Harvey

Mason & Dixon, by Thomas Pynchon (Henry Holt, $28). In 1763, Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon, two British surveyors, embarked on a perilous trek through Indian-controlled wilderness to establish a border between the feuding Pennsylvania and Maryland colonies — the epochal Mason-Dixon line between North and South. Thomas Pynchon, a legendary adventurer of a different sort, is the author of brilliant and almost unfathomably complex novels, including V. and Gravity's Rainbow. The adamantly private Pynchon had long been rumored to be devoting his energies to a sprawling masterwork about the melancholic Mason and the rowdy Dixon, and now the rumors prove true. He frames his fifth novel around real dates and actual events, from the surveyors' first expedition to the Cape of Good Hope in 1761 and their epic mapping junket through pre-Revolutionary America to their return to England in 1768, but this is not your typically earnest historical novel: Over the course of their hilariously imagined voyages, Pynchon's Mason and Dixon encounter a hemp-smoking George Washington, a Chinese Feng-Shui master, a talking dog, and a mechanical duck that springs to life. By the end, even the Mason-Dixon line has taken on a force of its own as a "tree-slaughtering Animal, with no purpose but to continue creating forever a perfect Corridor over the Land" — a powerful metaphor for everything that has divided Americans from their environment and from one another. With its large cast of characters and dizzying erudition, Mason & Dixon boasts all the intricacies of Pynchon's previous novels, together with the picaresque flourishes and archaic punctuation of eighteenth-century English prose. Pynchon loyalists argue that even his knottiest thickets are worth the trouble, and there is certainly no writer who better matches serious intentions with a ribald and cockeyed irreverence. Still, for those intending to tackle this 784-page opus, a rudimentary knowledge of astronomy and surveying would certainly come in handy, as would a familiarity with the politics of the time and the history of cartography. Or maybe it's best to just throw prudence to the wind and scratch your own way through this dense but glorious wilderness of words.
Esau, by Philip Kerr (Henry Holt, $23). This fast-paced pseudoscientific thriller opens with climber Jack Furness hanging from a tenuous perch on a massive edifice of ice near the summit of Machhapuchhre in the Himalayas. Seconds later, several thousand tons of mountain peel off the peak, killing Furness's climbing partner and depositing our plucky hero, miraculously unscathed, in a limestone cave high on the north face, where he discovers the skull of a recently deceased yeti. So begins Esau, a novel in which Furness — "America's number one mountaineer" — leads a team of researchers, spies, and Sherpas in their search for the abominable missing link. Although characters like paleoanthropologist Stella Swift, who possesses both genius and "perfect curves," are too thinly drawn, Esau's engrossing mixture of pop erudition, high-altitude action, and outlandish plot twists makes for a wild ride. Literature it's not, but if warm weather has you pining for alpine vistas and cheap thrills, Esau might be just the summer page-turner you're after.

Endangered Mexico: An Environment on the Edge, by Joel Simon (Sierra Club Books, $27). "I did not go looking for Mexico's environmental crisis," writes Mexico City-based reporter Simon. "One day it found me." On March 7, 1991, 10,000 tons of airborne toxins stalled over Mexico City, sickening virtually the entire population, including the author, with what felt like a "collective hangover." Indeed, everywhere he turns in Mexico, Simon finds ecological time bombs. On farms, overuse of chemical fertilizers is poisoning the fields; in resort areas such as Canc”n, beachfront development threatens the world's second-longest barrier reef; and in the capital city, not only has the air turned deadly, but a rapidly emptying underground aquifer is causing buildings to sink and streets to buckle. Simon details Mexico's devastating environmental problems with admirable balance and insight, offering compelling evidence that the nations's natural-resources crisis is a root cause of many seemingly unrelated problems, including political corruption and the flood of emigration to the United States. This is an important and frightening book, one that makes it alarmingly clear why Mexico's troubles are ours as well.

North Country: A Personal Journey Through the Borderland, by Howard Frank Mosher (Houghton Mifflin, $23). At the beginning of this graceful travelogue, the author professes an abiding "love of all things northern," the result of having "lived hard by the Canadian border for 30 years." In the summer of his 50th year, Mosher, a novelist whose books include Where the Rivers Flow North, sets out from his Vermont home to follow a wandering route from Lubec, Maine, to Blaine, Washington, in search of "the wildest and most remote country" he can find along both sides of the border. On the way, he hitches a bush plane ride with a Quebecois whiskey smuggler, nearly gets busted for trespassing at a North Dakota nuclear missile silo, and meets up with a menacing Idaho survivalist. Mosher has a keen eye, and his short chapters — miniature essays, really — are like well-framed snapshots, vivid for the most part but occasionally a little lackadaisical. Even if his road trip has dull stretches, however, North Country succeeds as an engaging miscellany of casual encounters, briefly told life stories, and word-portraits of the borderland's hardworking, resilient residents.

Photographs by Clay Ellis

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