Monday, November 22, 2010

Jay Kirk's "Kingdom Under Glass"

Jay Kirk's nonfiction has been published in Harper's, GQ, the New York Times Magazine, and The Nation. His work has been anthologized in Best American Crime Writing 2003 and Best American Crime Writing 2004, and Best American Travel Writing 2009 (edited by Simon Winchester). He is a recipient of a 2005 Pew Fellowship in the Arts and is a MacDowell Fellow. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Kirk applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals, and reported the following:
Weirdly enough, when I turn to page 99 I find the kernel of what first turned me on to my main character, Carl Akeley, the famous taxidermist who would not only revolutionize his grim art, and create the dioramas in the Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum in New York City -- after five harrowing expeditions to kill the animals he would later resurrect with painstaking verisimilitude -- but in the end who would become transformed as a great conservationist and save the mountain gorillas. The interesting thing here is that on page 99, we find Carl Akeley in the middle of strangling a leopard with his bare hands. I first came across this particular detail while conducting research on a story for Harper’s Magazine about extinct cats, specifically, the Eastern Mountain Lion, which, despite its status as extinct since 1888, still enjoys more “sightings” than Elvis Presley. I remember I was reading about the general historic background, when America was systematically exterminating cougars and wolves and all these great mammals that we thought were devil creatures but now consider charismatic (perhaps due to their harmless scarcity). In any event, it was during my research that I first ran across a mention in passing about Akeley and his death match with the leopard in Somaliland, in 1896. In the end, however, if it weren’t for the epiphany he had while collecting mountain gorillas, in 1921, paradoxically enough, the mountain gorilla would have gone extinct.

Page 99, Kingdom Under Glass:…it was too small a target. Then the other bird poked up its head, and figuring he stood a better chance of hitting at least one, he decided to take the shot, but by the time he took aim, the damn things had ducked out of sight. After repeating this several times, he tired of the game, and decided to climb down off the termite hill and go back into the grass after them.

All he found was an empty nest in a small clearing. The sandy ground was so scratched up with tracks, he couldn’t tell which way they’d gone off, and for a minute he stood there wondering what to do next. Then he heard a sound, a rustling in the grass, and the ostrich cock came running out. Akeley half-aimed and took a wild shot. But before he could chamber another round, the hideous bird vanished back into the bush and again he was alone.

When he saw that the last bit of the day’s sun was beginning to flare against the horizon, he started back. But, on his way, when he returned to the spot where he’d left the warthog, he found to his naïve dismay only vulture feathers and hyena tracks scattered in the dusty red soil. The entire day had been a complete waste.

He had not gone much further, however, when he saw a hyena duck ahead into the grass with what he was pretty sure was the head of his warthog in its jaws. He cursed when it slipped away before he could get in a shot, and decided to think about the stiff drink he’d have when he got back to camp. But then, a few steps later, he saw another shadowy figure in the grass and—in the mood to take vengeance for his loss—thoughtlessly fired.

In reply, a high chilling yowl came from the grass. It was not the cry of a hyena at all. Scared, now, he fired two more shots and then felt the dry click of the trigger on the third. His rifle was empty. Sensing that he had only wounded whatever he’d just blindly shot at, he ran up a nearby hill, trying to jam a cartridge into the magazine. He jumped over a bank into a dry, sandy river bed, and turned to see if he was being followed. But by the time he registered the black spots and long switching tail it was too late. Springing from the grass, the leopard knocked the rifle from his hands. It lunged for his throat. But, instinctively, Carl twisted—and just in time—as its jaws clamped down on his shoulder instead. Screaming and doing his best to dodge the giant cat’s scrambling hind claws, he managed to fall in the right direction and by dint of this accident pinned…
Read an excerpt from Kingdom Under Glass, and learn more about the book and author at Jay Kirk's website.

--Marshal Zeringue