John Vaillant, The Tiger

I've read John Vaillant before, and I really enjoyed his first book The Golden Spruce: A True Story of Myth, Madness, and Greed. Mind you, I was unpleasantly surprised while teaching the book to my fourth-year class in literature and environment to discover, mid-lecture, that the chapter sequence is quite different between the hardcover and softcover first editions! I haven't seen an explanation for the difference, but maybe I should just ask him....

Anyway, his second book came out last year, again to considerable acclaim, and perversely I've deferred reading it for months after being loaned a copy. Now that I've sat down to read it, I can tell you that I had a really tough time interrupting myself while reading The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. (Maybe his third book will be subtitled A True Story of [only one noun], and his fourth simply A True Story [full stop]. Publishers. Who knows.)

It's not unputdownable, this book, but Vaillant has again done a great job of wrapping a complex array of thorough background elements around a gripping but ultimately brief story. Anyone thinking of writing a book-length piece of nonfiction journalism needs to see how Vaillant does it, because he's much more successful than many other writers (I'm looking at you, Marty), even though his method is ultimately predictable.

The hook is simple: huge man-eating tiger! multiple victims! animals who think! And the story itself delivers on the promise, with suspense and excitement and moments of genuine drama, but that's the easy part. What sets this book apart is Vaillant's ability to keep us reading through all the background so that the hook becomes more or less irrelevant to what we take away from The Tiger, no matter how deeply the hook might be set in our readerly jaws.

Now, I'm nerdy about this sort of thing like you've never seen, so it's predictable that I'd enjoy it, but I'm not the only one: here, or here, or here for reviews by readers less likely to be automatic fans.

Tiger evolution; the timetable of ancestral human dispersal from Africa; two-plus centuries of Sino-Russian politics; Jakob von Uexkull's concepts of "Umwelt" and "Umgebung" ("In addition to being delightful words to say, umwelt and umgebung offer a framework for exploring and describing the experience of other creatures" [p.162]); post-perestroika cultural collapse, aka katastroika; tiger consciousness: this book offers all kinds of angles, just like The Golden Spruce did, and to similarly impressive effect. Vaillant brushes up against here at least a dozen themes from the recent ASLE conference I attended, and I can't recommend the book highly enough - even though it's possible that you may not like the book as much as I did.

You'd be wrong, but it's possible!

(Don't believe me? Try the New York Times, or the Washington Post, or the Independent. The Independent has what looks to be the most positive review I've seen: "Whatever its signal virtues as eco-fable and chase narrative, The Tiger also counts as a supreme example of true-crime writing driven by wide-angle empathy and compassion. Some readers may choose to shelve it, not among cosy wildlife yarns, but with Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.")


Northfield59 said…
Just finished reading The Tiger and then I read the Golden Spruce. It's great when you discover an author you love to read. When is the third book coming out??
richard said…
No idea when a next book might be coming out! He's not a quick writer, with such careful research - send him a note and ask him. Fan mail is always welcome, I should think; authors like to be appreciated.

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