Books: The Real Deal

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Outside magazine, March 1999

Books: The Real Deal
By James Zug


For the Time Being, by Annie Dillard (Alfred A. Knopf, $22). Composing a prose collage combining bird-headed dwarves, the clay warriors of China’s Xi’an region, and the transformation of sand into clay in the same book ù let alone the same passage ù might seem pretentious in another writer. Annie Dillard, however, is as
wonderfully sturdy as they come, with a voice blending clear-eyed factuality with prismatic meditations on ineffable things. In For the Time Being, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Pilgrim at Tinker
almost completely removes herself from the narrative. In fact, there is no overarching story; instead, it is a paragraph-by-paragraph collection of arresting historical anecdotes, astringent musings, and improbable statistics revolving around a set of eight recurring subjects, which include “scenes from a paleontologist’s explorations in the deserts of
China,” “a natural history of sand,” “narrative bits from modern Israel and China,” and “the thinking of the Hasidic Jews of Eastern Europe.” Amazingly, all this disparate material comes together in an exhilarating, graceful roundelay of profound questions and suppositions about the human adventure in nature. And as always, reading Dillard makes this mind-expanding
experience an emotional one. On visiting an archaeological dig, for example: “Seeing the broad earth under the open sky, and a patch of it sliced into deep corridors from which bodies emerge, surprises many people to tears. Who would not weep from shock? I seemed to see our lives from the aspect of eternity.” This uncommon book is a testament to a rare and redeeming
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The Return of Little Big Man, by Thomas Berger (Little, Brown, $25). When you’ve spent half of the last century roaming the American West, you’re liable to possess an abiding impatience with the romanticized history propounded by folks who weren’t there. Such is the case with 112-year-old Jack Crabb, the grizzled narrator of this sequel
to Thomas Berger’s classic black-humor western, Little Big Man (1964). In the early 1960s, after faking his own death (thus liberating himself from a book contract), Crabb resumes his oral history where he left off, as a 37-year-old adopted Cheyenne who survives the fighting at Little Bighorn in 1876. As he did in Little Big Man, Crabb has an uncanny knack for popping up at one landmark event after another, accompanied yet again by an all-star cast of frontier legends, foremost among them James B. “Wild Bill” Hickok, William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, and Sitting Bull. Although it’s not a surprising tour-de-force on the same level as its predecessor, The Return provides great entertainment and a wild ride through wicked revisionist history. Happily and hopefully, Crabb ends his story in 1893 by taking a nap, and before nodding off he hints that we may get future revelations about later adventures, such as what really happened during the Rough Riders’ famous charge. “Who,” the old man asks,
“would straighten you out on such details but me?”
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The Cowboy Way: Seasons of a Montana Ranch, by David McCumber (Bard, $24). The difference between the author of this book and the western heroes of Hollywood and Marlboro Man daydreams is that “none of them ever saw the business end of a cow.” David McCumber, the founder and publisher of Big Sky Journal,
spent a year as a ranch hand on a 100,000-acre cattle operation near his southern Montana home, putting in 12-hour days shoveling manure, assisting with emergency bovine C-sections, extracting his boss’s pickup from thigh-high mud, and eating his way through
pails of Rocky Mountain oysters. Only twice during his tenure, in fact, does the neophyte saddle-tramp grace the back of a horse. Like any honest cowboy, McCumber forgoes highfalutin lyricism for a gritty, plain-talking record of ranching’s real deal: the sweaty physical labor, the harrowing weather of the high plains along the northern Rockies, the fights and swearing
and “ass-chewings” that come with the job. Mamas will definitely not want their babies to grow up to be cowboys if they read McCumber’s story, but he does succeed at conveying the humble satisfactions as well as the ornery torments of the life. “Everything happened the way it was supposed to,” the author writes, shortly before leaving the ranch. “It would have without
me there, but I felt, as I had lately, that I’d been useful, and there aren’t many better feelings.”
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Lost on Earth: Nomads of the New World, by Mark Fritz (Little, Brown, $25). For the estimated 50 million displaced people who fled their homes and countries in the decade since the collapse of communism, travel is not escapism, but a literal escape ù a final fling at survival. Mark Fritz, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist,
brings the reader into a vast “shadowland of outlanders,” telling the story of the largest migratory community in recorded history. “Some of them were refugees,” he writes. “Some hadn’t quite crossed the threshold of a recognized boundary, hadn’t quite vaulted into a clear statistical category. They were just running.” Fritz tracked refugee groups in Sarajevo, Somalia,
Kuwait, Romania, and elsewhere. The tales the author tells are profoundly moving, but one wishes he had devoted more energy to following up on the long-term outcome of these stories and less to incorporating pedantic policy discussions into his narrative. Still, Fritz does a commendable job of bringing forward the human faces out of the tsunami of people scattering for
their lives.
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Photographs by Clay Ellis

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