Mention Barry Lopez and most people think nature writer. Lopez well deserves this distinction. Of Wolves and Men, first published in 1978, falls in that rare category of finely written nature books not sentimental about the object of study. An expert blend of science and personal experience, the book itself is dedicated to "Wolves, not the book, for which you would have little use, but the effort at understanding."
Of Wolves and Men is a studious book written with lyricism. Readers are not only seduced into a fuller knowledge of wolves and the predatory world in which they live, but also share Lopez's respectful awe of a creature that has so long been part of the human imagination.
Arctic Dreams is the book that Lopez is most famous for. Published in 1986 and winner of the American Book Award, it stands as one of the definitive sources of information of the imposing northernmost area of the world. Arctic Dreams, based on Lopez's first-hand knowledge of the area, explores geology, plant, animal and indigenous human life in the Arctic. The three stated themes of this narrative are "the influence of arctic landscape on the human imagination. How a desire to put a landscape to use shapes our evaluation of it. And, confronted by an unknown landscape, what happens to our sense of wealth." Here, once again, Lopez writes a scientifically based book shaped by the sensibilities of an artist.
But before Lopez wrote either of these books, he published small volumes of fiction. River Notes, Winter Count and Desert Notes are collections of intensely personal narratives that rely largely on landscape and the spiritual place landscape holds in the human psyche. Closer to prose poetry than fiction, these stories stand as highly specialized works, often with no characters other than the narrator and the "you" he addresses. The story "Perimeter," for example, describes the geography, animal life, smells and sound to the north, south, east and west of the narrator, ending with this lyrical summary:
"From the middle of the desert even on a dark night you can look out at the mountains and perceive the differences in direction. From the middle of the desert you can see everything well, even in the black dark of a new moon. You know where everything is coming from."
"It is through story," writes Lopez, "that we may glimpse, at least occasionally, how to live without despair in the midst of the horror that dogs and unhinges us." For the naturalist that he is, the obstacles to providing this glimpse would seem nearly impossible to overcome. Lopez typically faces nature head-on, confronts the damage done and still finds the spirituality to appreciate what has remained out of the realm of destruction.
In his latest collection of stories, however, Lopez's tenuous glimpse becomes itself unhinged.
"Light Action in the Caribbean," the title story of this collection, follows an American couple on vacation in the Caribbean. Libby believes that David, a "guy who makes like a hundred and sixteen thousand dollars a year [and] goes to the trouble to actually check everything out, to spend the money smartly," really does "know how to handle it all." David, with his superior knowledge, large and highly visible envelope of cash, lime-green wraparound sunglasses and Rolex watch, convinces the reluctant driver of the private boat that he has hired to take them to "places nobody's been before."
David gradually evolves from someone Libby views as a great catch to someone who needlessly puts her in life-threatening danger through his obtuse refusal to accept the boat driver's superior knowledge. The result is tragic and shocking. Lopez enhances the effect with a chillingly clinical, dispassionate voice. Not only does the form of this story vary greatly from the short, mostly plotless tales typical of Lopez, but also gone is the reassuring comfort of his fictional landscape.
Other stories in Light Action in the Caribbean are less shocking, but still demonstrate a new direction for Lopez's fiction. Some are experimental, such as "Ruben Mendoza Vega, Suzuki Professor of Early Caribbean History, University of Florida at Gainesville, Offers a History of the United States Based on Personal Experience." This interesting one-paragraph story tells of a family claim dating from 1524 to tobacco fields in Cuba and a son who "repudiated his heritage in an act of suicide." More than nine pages of footnotes and an extensive bibliography provide more of the story than the story itself.
Light Action in the Caribbean contains stories set in Peru, China, the Middle East, the Caribbean and various sites around our own country, and speak of such varied characters as horse thieves, prisoners, monks and a vicious deaf girl. The stories take risks in subject matter and presentation, some more successfully than others. Like all of Lopez's work, though, they are never dull.