First Reads
10:14 am
Tue April 9, 2013

Exclusive First Read: 'Snapper,' By Brian Kimberling

Originally published on Tue April 9, 2013 11:11 am

Brian Kimberling's debut novel, Snapper, is a lovely, loose-limbed collection of stories about an aimless ornithologist named Nate, who as the book opens is possessed of a glitter-covered pickup truck and a massive (somewhat requited) crush on redheaded dream girl Lola. Nate and his friends wander toward marriage and maturity over the course of 13 linked stories — encountering angry snapping turtles, bald eagles and mystic mechanics along the way. In this excerpt, Nate and his friend Shane (the unfortunate victim of that snapping turtle) decide to while away a rainy weekend with a copy of The Anarchist Cookbook. Snapper will be published April 23.


Squander Indiana

Shane once hitchhiked across Indiana for a weekend visit. He had welts on his hips from his backpack and blistered feet from his boots. The trek involved more hiking than hitching, he said. Drivers stopped but they proved to be drunk or deranged. One mustachioed driver in a Toyota Corolla coolly placed his free hand on Shane's thigh for twenty minutes while opining on the merits of various handguns. When he pulled in for gas, Shane fled. An older man in a pickup truck had been jolly and full of good stories, but he was also three-quarters into a bottle of Dark Eyes. They got lost on a gravel road, to Shane's relief. He offered to drive and the man got angry, so Shane struck off on foot through a cornfield in heavy November rain. Twenty minutes later a clarinettist from Ohio took pity on him and talked about his wife's leukemia for thirty miles, until grief overwhelmed him and he couldn't drive either. Shane offered to drive or at least keep him company but the clarinettist just asked to be alone.

"And the moral of the story," said Shane, "is that I hope you have some beer."

"Maybe you should have used your other thumb," I said. I took every opportunity to remind him of that absurd turtle. By then all you could see on Shane's thumb was a broad white ring of scar tissue.

"Funny," he said flatly.

I did have some beer — though I hadn't known he was coming — but we didn't stay up long. He was bone-weary and hadn't arrived until almost eleven on a Friday night. We agreed I'd lend him the fare for a Greyhound home on Sunday. He fell across the couch and drifted off while I was still talking. The rain had followed him and battered my windows as if angry that he had got away.

***

In the morning we decided to smoke banana peels. The weather remained foul and the bars weren't open yet. Shane said he was just curious to see if it really worked. In high school we smoked tea leaves once for the same reason. On another occasion he made a sextant from a compact disc, some Legos, and a compact makeup mirror just to prove it could be done. (It was adequate to show that you were somewhere in the Northern Hemisphere.) I'm pretty sure he had hitchhiked just to see if that worked, too. I couldn't match his enthusiasm, but I enjoyed laughing at him. He had brought The Anarchist Cookbook with him, damp around the edges despite the protection of his backpack. Among the instructions for credit card fraud and nail bombs it contained a recipe. It explained that bananadine, harvested from the skins, is a mild, short-lived psychedelic. We set off for the grocery store in my truck.

We caught up as I drove. Shane was pursuing a master's degree in library science. He hated it. He wanted to work with books, but was compelled instead to study "information architecture" and all manner of new technology.

"One of the professors called the phone book a database with limited search functionality the other day. With a straight face. That's when I decided to take a break."

I had my own database woes. The results of fieldwork I did in spring and summer had to be compiled in fall and winter. At the time I was studying variations in migration times. The Eastern phoebe has kept the same schedule for one hundred years — clearly a form of climate change denial. The yellow warbler, on the other hand, had begun to freak out, showing up early by a matter of weeks. Other migrants fell somewhere on a spectrum between them. I was trying to figure it all out in a rented one-bedroom apartment in Richmond, where I didn't know anybody. Or almost nobody. I also explained to Shane that I had been seeing a woman named Emma who got fed up with me for talking constantly about Lola. I took her exasperated advice and rang Lola up; she came for a weekend visit the next day. When I told Emma she threw her high-heeled shoe at me outside a café.

***

Fifteen pounds of bananas was all the grocery store had in stock and more than I could fit in my freezer (the Anarchist Cookbook recipe does not call for the fruit itself ). The cashier peered at us quizzically. "I got a gorilla," said Shane, and she didn't pursue the subject. On the way home Shane tried to start a game. State licence plates then all read WANDER INDIANA across the bottom in bold black lettering.

"Squander Indiana," said Shane.

"Okay," I said. "Ponder Indiana." It was weak but the best I could come up with. Shane went quiet for a while.

"Launder Indiana?" he said, and the game was over before it ever got off the ground.

***

The stringy pieces inside the banana peel are what you're after. They're thin and sparsely distributed, which is why you need so many bananas. We sat in the kitchen peeling them and began talking about another game we used to play.

In high school we had made up book titles that people we didn't like might write. How to Look Down Your Nose at People Taller Than You, for example, by Shane's sniffy though beautiful neighbor Carol Arbuckle. Shane suggested that we compare our predictive titles with real results.

Somehow we were unable to laugh. The author of Same Size Dick & Brain had recently played Russian roulette alone, nobody knew why. He had removed five bullets from his revolver and left them standing in a neat row on his coffee table. His body was discovered two days later by his girlfriend, and we cringed to recollect that she wrote I Floss My Ass Twice a Day. That casual, youthful malice of ours was embarrassing in hindsight. Meanwhile, the author of 80 Greatest Bloodlines: My Family Tree was selling real estate in Boonville. That could not be a full-time job. The girl who wrote How to Suck a Golf Ball Through a Garden Hose was in rehab for the third time, and her twin daughters were wards of the state because nobody knew their father's whereabouts. The handsome baritone who got all the leads in school plays and musicals worked in a video rental store. We couldn't remember what he wrote.

We had given each other titles, too. Shane wrote Am I Wishy-Washy? Or Just Equivocal? while apparently I penned Droll Sneers of Self-Defense.

"I'm updating yours," said Shane. "You'll fill a bookshelf seven feet long with twenty-two volumes all called Lola."

Once you have scraped out your peels with a sharp knife, you boil the scrapings in a large pot until it obtains a solid paste consistency. We stood over the pot, stirring and exchanging further bulletins on mutual friends. These tidings were not as grim, but more touching, because we liked these people.

Our friend Matt had finished his PhD in biology and found a job — after all, he wrote Mister Spock Got Nothin' on Me — but already his academic career was in jeopardy, because he had become involved with an undergraduate. There was no question of wrongdoing on his part, we thought, but in those PC panic years it seemed he might have to seek tenure elsewhere. Apparently — Shane heard from his dad, who was still on the academic grapevine — Matt had proposed to the girl shortly after receiving a letter from his dean. It carried a whiff of Matt attempting to do some desperate and unnecessary version of the honorable thing.

I told Shane that Sam, who wrote I Will Tie My Own Shoes Before I Reach Thirty, had been indicted for tax fraud.

"You remember Eddie?" said Shane. He had written Porn in the USA: A Concordance, among other things. "He's slinging burgers in a blues bar, apparently. They call him Fast Eddie."

Shane told me that our friend Alex, who wrote 88 Ways to Please 88 Women, was married and miserable in England. He stayed in his office until nine every night.

"It's a matter of time until the secretary bats an eyelid," I suggested.

"I don't think so," said Shane. "That's what's so tragic. He wants kids and stuff. She's on medication for panic attacks. It's like after they married they moved to opposite poles of the emotional earth."

"Emotional earth?"

"You know what I mean."

"Right. So someone dances around his emotional pole and that's that."

"I don't think he will," said Shane.

"Why not?" "He wants kids, not just some hearty low roll in the hay. That's what's so depressing."

"One leads to the other." Shane was always charitable to a fault.

Once you have your paste, you put it on a cookie sheet and stick it in the oven until it becomes a black powder, about twenty minutes.

"Let's change the subject," I said. I felt vaguely ashamed of our callow youth. Grown men smoke banana peels, after all.

Shane told me he had taken up driving a bus in the mornings and afternoons, fitting his academic work around that. "Not a bus, a van, really. Shuttling kids to a Montessori school." It kept him in beer.

"Rich kids," I said.

"Yeah. It's hilarious," he said. "And kind of worrying. These little kids, five and six years old, get on and the first thing they say to each other is you can't have the fucking rumble seat, you had it yesterday asshole, give me the fucking rumble seat." He mimed kicks and punches. "You can't tell their parents. I mean, you can, but they won't listen. They think Dakota or Priscilla or Cheyenne or Tabitha is an angel and you must be mistaken, it was the other kids."

"Sounds terrible," I said.

"Well, it was. For the first week I thought, How can I defuse all this anger? I tried to get them to sing songs. They told me to fuck off. I tried to tell jokes. They ignored me. So I thought, How can I channel all this rage?"

He paused dramatically and I dutifully asked how he channeled it.

"I showed them cars that don't signal and drivers that overtake the van when they shouldn't, stuff like that. I said when you see those people, flip them the bird. They didn't know what that meant so I showed them."

"You're showing six-year-olds how to give the finger?"

"Only to people who deserve it."

Once your paste has browned and solidified, you crush it with a mortar and pestle, and it's ready to smoke. Shane had loose tobacco and rolling papers, and we rolled one very fat starter joint and a couple of smaller ones in reserve.

"How is Lola, anyway?" he said. They had met a few times but they didn't seem to like each other. Neither said so directly to me, but I gathered that Shane found her pretentious, and Lola once called him "earthy."

"When small birds sigh, she sighs back at them," I said.

"What?" "That's a poem you showed me in seventh grade. Theodore Roethke."

"I don't remember that," said Shane. "What I remember," he said, and left it hanging while he inhaled deeply from the first joint and held it in as long as he could.

"Harsh," he said, coughing and handing it to me.

I inhaled. Banana smoke is grating and deeply unpleasant.

"What I remember," he said, "is you finding a bucket of huge frogs in the biology lab." I had flung them individually down the smooth marble halls just before the bell rang, spraying formaldehyde everywhere. Boys flung them farther, girls screamed, and teachers panicked. I was a hero for the afternoon.

"What I remember," I said, when it was his turn to smoke, "is you climbing out the window of my car into the window of Holiday Hancock's car at forty-five miles an hour." Holiday probably wrote The Anarchist Cookbook herself.

The cookbook promises that the effects of bananadine are felt after two or three cigarettes. We smoked eight in succession, reminiscing on the stupid, shallow, dangerous dumb things we used to do.

"It's a hoax," I said. Neither of us could feel a thing. "It has to be. Otherwise you could buy the stuff on the street. Banana prices would spike."

"I thought it might be," he said. I looked at the clock. It was nearly five. Outside the rain continued.

"Well, that's one afternoon shot to hell," I said.

"No," said Shane. "Other people are watching TV."

From the book Snapper, by Brian Kimberling. Copyright 2013 by Brian Kimberling. Published by arrangement with The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group and Random House Audio Publishing Group divisions of Random House, Inc.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.