Birdwatching in small-town Indiana: Brian Kimberling’s Snapper

Brian Kimberling's SnapperI’ve always been told not to judge a book by its cover, but let’s face it: everybody does it, and sometimes it works.

Case in point: Snapper, by Brian Kimberling. Birds surround the title as though it’s a grub they would like nothing more than to dig out of a rotten stump and feed to their squawking young. Individually, they’re nothing special: mostly brown, unassuming, and the sort of birds you might see on your patio in the spring.

But put together, they draw out the best in each other – highlighting differences in markings, stripes, and patches, and drawing out the undertones of orange, chestnut, and robin’s egg blue that lurk under the foundation of drab brown. Maybe you didn’t think birds could be interesting subject matter, but Kimberling is here to prove you wrong. These birds are gorgeous and insistent, impatient to have their stories told.

Given how long I’ve managed to talk about birds already, it’s unsurprising that we find ourselves in the capable hands of narrator Nathan Lochmueller, a man who observes Indiana birds for a living. It’s a solitary gig, but also harder than it sounds since the birds do their best to keep predators and threats (including Nathan) away from their homes. He has to use his wits—and his ears – to track his quarry.

When I first picked up Snapper, I expected a novel – but I was in for a surprise. While the same locales and characters appear throughout the book, but Snapper is constructed as a series of short tales rather than a novel. While I tend to avoid collections of short fiction, the formatting works really, really well. In the end, Snapper comes off as a series of autobiographical stories, as though Nathan Lochmueller is a real person living in a small American town somewhere, quietly putting together the interesting tales of his life, maybe publishing them as a monthly column in the local newspaper before gathering them up into the collection that became Snapper.  It can be read as a meandering whole, or it can be digested one story at a time.

It’s weird, and good, and a testament to Kimberling’s skill as a writer: it’s structured and detailed in exactly the right way for every element to work together in a perfectly realistic Indiana microworld. Each story links to the next, ranging from heartbreak to extreme weather to petty arguments between roommates. The details of the Indiana forest are weirdly and surprisingly enrapturing – I can’t imagine any reason to go to Indiana, but when I put the book down I found myself with a bizarrely serious desire to visit. When you finish reading this book, maybe we can take a road trip together.

You can pick up a copy of your very own over at Abe Books (your favourite global conglomerate of independent bookstores), or you can read my original review over at The Cascade (and check out some of their other book reviews while you’re there, if you’re so inclined).

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