David Leach, Fatal Tide

Dude can write, I tell you.

It's been way too long since I convinced David Leach to cycle to my house and sell me a copy of Fatal Tide: When the Race of a Lifetime Goes Wrong. I'm suspecting that it languished on my TBR pile (which isn't nearly as organized as this photogenic one) simply because I know him well enough that I trusted it'd be good, and because I see him often enough that I wasn't necessarily missing out, but (a) these are just suspicions, and (b) I'm making them up.

Because the bottom line is that this book is much better even than I thought it would be, and I've read enough of Leach's essays in explore and British Columbia and elsewhere that I expected it would be really well researched and engagingly written. It hasn't sold all that well (I gather, though I don't know for sure), and there are some likely reasons behind that, but I'm betting here that its readers are almost unanimously happy with it.

The obvious point of comparison is with Jon Krakauer's disaster nature books Into the Wild and Into Thin Air, both of which have sold ridiculously well and the first of which even led to a pretty good movie. (Honestly, who knew that Eddie Vedder could do soundtrack music like a young Henry Mancini? And I wonder if that Kristen Stewart will do any more acting; she did well.) Compared to Fatal Tide, Krakauer's books have some unfair advantages that can't really be overcome by a book that's seeking a similar readership.

Into the Wild has a main character who's self-aware and who dies very slowly, leaving a journal whose pages chart the writer's gradual and horrifyingly inevitable death; Fatal Tide's Rene Arsenault wakes up absurdly healthy on June 1, 2002, and successfully completes the first two events of a multi-sport extreme adventure race, suddenly dying in silence during the final stage. Into Thin Air is set at the summit of Mount Everest, for pete's sake, and Krakauer was actually present during the catastrophe about which he's writing; Leach visited New Brunswick numerous times and interviewed dozens of people in pursuit of the most intimate, detailed portrait he could provide -- but it's New Brunswick, and it's not his own story, but Rene Arsenault's.

Really, though, this just explains why Krakauer's books have sold so well. They're somewhat formulaic, though relatively short on cliche, and the prose can sometimes thud, but he has an unerring eye for a story worth telling. In Fatal Tide, Leach has a similarly valuable story, but it's shorter on glamour, and the greater quality of his writing hasn't yet overcome Krakauer's headstart of a readily saleable story (rather than a valuable one). I really did sprint through Fatal Tide, because it grabbed me and didn't let go, making it pleasant but awkward company on my recent conference trip to Vancouver.

To sum up: This book deserves a much wider readership, and I'm looking forward with even more anticipation to the product of Leach's current expedition to Israel. Hopefully Viking will put out Fatal Tide in paperback soon, because imho, a hardcover was a bad idea. Fatal Tide is the kind of book very likely indeed to be given as a gift to thousands of outdoors types -- but never ever as a hardcover, because it'd screw up the shape of the pack.

Hardcovers are so 1973. C'mon, Viking, publish the book the way it really should appear!

(Unnecessary but genuine sign of commitment: One of the courses I regularly teach occurs at the intersection of literature and environment, a special-topics course whose focus changes annually, and it turns out that I've been unconsciously pondering a course in which Fatal Tide would fit pretty nicely. I'm thinking "Encountering the Wild," possibly, with several versions of what "the Wild" might mean, but only since finishing this book. Gretchen Legler's On The Ice: An Intimate Portrait of Life at McMurdo Station Antarctica; something by Krakauer, obviously; maybe Sid Marty's Black Bear of Whiskey Creek, in spite of my abundant misgivings; that sort of thing. Any thoughts?)


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