Outside magazine, June 1999
The Man Who Tried to Save the World, by Scott Anderson (Doubleday, $25).
Put your thrillers aside: One of the most gripping accounts of spycraft and gamesmanship in today’s wars—hot, cold, and balkanized—can be found in veteran war correspondent Scott Anderson’s nonfiction account of the life and disappearance of international relief worker Fred Cuny. A Texan who learned to fly at 16, Cuny was a tangle of contradictory
ambitions, an egomaniacal cowboy Mother Theresa. After flunking out of Marine Corps training in 1964, he cut his teeth on natural disasters in Bangladesh and Nicaragua but soon abandoned these for more “complex emergencies”: wars. Despising ineffective “do-gooders,” he alienated many in the aid community by founding a for-profit disaster-relief company, but no one
could argue with his results. His greatest triumphs—saving thousands of Kurds after the Gulf War and securing safe water for Sarajevo during the Serb blockade—may have ultimately fueled the hubris that led him to venture too deeply into the byzantine conflict in Chechnya, where he vanished in the spring of 1995. Anderson’s painstaking investigation into the
intrigue surrounding Cuny’s probable murder—a mystery compounded by rumors that Cuny was spying behind rebel lines, trying to determine whether Soviet nuclear missiles had fallen into the wrong hands—yields a compelling and repellent portrait of the random violence practiced by all parties in that brutal war. But Cuny’s worst enemy may have been himself: As
an old girlfriend from Sarajevo notes, “He did things out of love for people—but for himself, too, to be the big Fred.” Being the big Fred may have gotten Cuny killed—and amid fresh horrors in the Balkans, at a moment when the world could least afford to lose him.
Some Horses, by Thomas McGuane (Lyons Press, $20).
This book isn’t long, but it doesn’t need to be, because you can read it over and over. It’s that good. McGuane, usually a novelist (The Bushwacked Piano, Ninety-Two in the Shade) and sometimes an essayist (An Outside Chance), is, like his beloved horses, always surprising, surefooted, and tricky. The
brief, often hilarious pieces in Some Horses (due in bookstores in the second half of June) are about the minds and personalities of his equine partners as observed at roping and cutting competitions, during time spent with venerable Texas horseman Buster Welch, and astride such favorite mounts as Roanie, also known as Lucky Bottom 79. A
forceful animal, Roanie once came back from the vet with a note reading, “Lucky Bottom 79’s rectal temperature not taken as he continually endangered human life.” McGuane, a man so enamored of his horses that he considered bringing them into the house “so that they could see exactly where we live,” turns admiration into clairvoyance: His horses “are well up on snake,”
and one of his mares mopes for six weeks when “a friend of hers, a cat, went to another ranch to mouse.” Noting that “the fast-breeding turbo-monkey called man” can never attain the moral clarity of the higher species except by surrounding himself with them, McGuane offers the rest of us a few fortuitous glimpses of “a family from which only man is estranged.”
The White Bone, by Barbara Gowdy (Metropolitan, $23).
That rare thing, a novel starring animals yet written for adults, The White Bone is an unsentimental and meticulously imagined immersion into the world of the African elephant. Through the eyes of Mud, Date Bed, and the bull Tall Time, Canadian novelist Gowdy, author of Mister Sandman, opens a door on
elephant culture—its modes of communication, family structure, and sexuality, as well as some brilliantly envisioned superstitions and songs—while chronicling the devastation visited upon the species by drought and human beings. Inhabiting the minds of animals whose capacity to mourn and remember their dead is only now being grasped by biologists, Goudy
allows for a unique perspective on humankind’s capacity for destruction. Her elephants view “today’s breed” of “hindleggers,” as they call people, with fear and contempt: “From the minds of humans came a silence…absolute and menacing….bent on annihilation.” Sadly, this extraordinary novel is utterly believable.
A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the Nineteenth Century, by Witold Rybczynski (Scribner, $28).
Principally known for designing and constructing New York’s Central Park, Olmsted was also, as Rybczynski (Home, City Life) relates, the quintessential nineteenth-century overachiever. Abolitionist, explorer, and urban planner, Olmsted found time to run California’s largest gold mine, cofound the 8, and
design Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, and Stanford University’s campus. Along with his contemporaries John Muir and Calvert Vaux, Olmsted (18221903) believed that the contemplation of natural beauty “tranquilizes and yet enlivens” the mind. One of the first wilderness advocates, he proposed early on that Yosemite—”the union of
the deepest sublimity with the deepest beauty of nature”—become a national park. Anyone interested in the savviest ideas about American spaces, whether parks or cities, wilderness or suburbs, would do well to spend some time with this biography of the master. —CAROLINE FRASER
PHOTOS: Clay Ellis