Monday, June 30, 2014

Nick Jans's "A Wolf Called Romeo"

Nick Jans is an award-winning writer, photographer, and author of numerous books, including The Grizzly Maze. He is a contributing editor to Alaska Magazine and has written for Rolling Stone, Backpacker, and the Christian Science Monitor.

Jans applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Wolf Called Romeo, and reported the following:
First, a thumbnail sketch of A Wolf Called Romeo, a blend of narrative, memoir, natural history, anecdotes ranging from tragic to humorous, thoughtful speculation, and cutting-edge science:

He might as well have been a unicorn, or a character straight out of a Disney nature film. I mean, a 120-pound wild wolf just shows up one day, on a frozen lake on the outskirts of Juneau, Alaska, and wants to play with our dogs. He's tolerant of people in general, and even friendly to some. He’s super-intelligent and interactive and social, and we get to know him as an individual. Yet the whole time he remains a wild wolf, hunting for his own food. He didn’t become habituated to people; he arrived that way, as if he’d fallen from the sky. You could suppose he was the archetypal wolf that came to lie by our fire millennia ago and became, through domestication, man’s best friend. Despite constant threats, he managed to live in the collective shadow of 30 thousand people for six years—and it would have been longer if not for the dark side of human nature, embodied by the two losers who killed him. Except for that last part, the entire story was magical, one of those experiences that transforms not just individuals, but an entire community. We’re talking about a wolf that ends up with two streets named after him, as well as a coffee and a beer. More than a hundred people show up at his memorial service, and a plaque is erected in his memory. Stuff like this just doesn't happen. But it did. Even now, having spent seven years living this story and another three writing it, with photographs that anchor the entire span of events in reality, the whole thing seems more like a dream than reality.

Onward, to the castle, torches lit!

Or at least, toward it. I'm not quite done winding up.

The page 99 test is an intriguing premise. I heard it for the first time in a creative writing seminar some years back; thought then, and still do, that it holds some water. Plenty of books start wonderfully, and wander off into the brush and get hung up within a hundred pages, and never do recover. However, I'm not sure the test works always, or with everything. Page 99 is, after all, an arbitrary number that can be altered by layout, font, page size, page breaks, and so on. After all, page 99 could be blank or nearly so, right? Or a photograph; I have 30 gray-scale images layered through the text, introducing and ending each chapter. Not to mention, the 99 test depends on the structure and genre of the book in question. I think it probably works better for fiction than nonfiction, and A Wolf Called Romeo fits the latter.

Sounds like I'm softening the blow for myself on a page 99 that isn't up to snuff, doesn't it? Let's get it over with; the suspense is killing me, since I have yet to see what's on page 99 myself. Here goes:
wolves deliberately seek bears — sometimes a cub or young brown/grizzlies, but especially black bears — as food. A number of such predatory attacks have been recorded in Alaska and Canada, and there’s at least one documented case of a pack digging out, killing, and eating a winter-denned bear. Though not predatory in nature, that wolf and grizzly brawl I witnessed thirty-some years ago reflected the general antipathy the species hold for each other. More recently, I witnessed the obvious fear wolves can trigger in black bears. One spring some years ago, in a distant inlet of Glacier Bay, photographer Mark Kelley and I sat perched on huge granite boulders, leaning into our cameras as two enormous, fight-scarred males jockeyed for turf and mating rights. Suddenly, though, a gray blur shot out of the trees, straight at the bears, and the two broke and ran, fleeing a wolf that might have weighed eighty pounds. The wolf was probably just running off the bears from a nearby den site or hunting area rather than launching a predatory attack, but the utter panic the bears displayed was unmistakable. Both brown/grizzly and black species occur in the upper Mendenhall, with the latter far more common; and younger animals, far less formidable than adults, could easily fall within the abilities of a wolf like Romeo now and then. But in such a limited area, the number of young bears was too small to provide a dependable food source.

All told, that was the sum of Romeo’s prospective menu; all of the abundant, easily accessible items more coyote fare than lupine, it seemed, and standard fare scarce or problematic. What, then, was he eating? Following the black wolf’s trails, I came across kill remains and teased apart dozens of scats. In them I found the bits of bone and hair that bore witness to the stuff from which this wolf was built.

Direct observation, along with analyses of not only scat, kills, and stomach contents, but of signature chemical traces found in DNA (which can be gathered nonlethally from tranquilized animals via hair or whisker samples) demonstrate that many Alaska wolves dedicate a surprising amount of energy — and gain a great deal in return — from nonhoofed sources. No huge shock that the Alexander Archipelago wolf subspecies of coastal Southeast Alaska and....
I like this page just fine. In it, I discuss bear-wolf relations through the lens of my own experience, including an anecdote of me and a friend watching a single smallish wolf chase off two huge male black bears. This ties into the main thrust of the chapter--what wolves eat in general, and what this particular wolf, Romeo, was eating, and how he managed to survive. The writing and content here is representative of one of several strands that weave throughout the book. But all it does is give you an accurate idea of that one strand. It doesn't give a hint at the sort of elevated writing that's layered throughout, or the purely narrative passages, and so on. For example, let's drop back to page 90:
I sat on the snow-covered ice, peering into my camera's viewfinder as flakes sifted from a low sky. Gus curled next to me, patient as always. Twenty yards away, Romeo stood against the Big Rock, and I waiting, finger on the shutter, for him to lift his muzzle and howl. The afternoon lay quiet, the ice so new, so thin that it creaked and bowed underfoot. Winter had drifted down from the high country, again, and with it the black wolf--returned for a second winter among us. Miracle enough that he had stayed the previous winter and into spring, even more that he would disappear one April evening--gone, as we knew he would be one day--and return months later. Of course we had worried ourselves sick that he'd been killed, bu we'd also celebrated his possible survival, and perhaps a home with a new pack. There had been no way of knowing which was true, and either way, we had no choice but to let go as best we could. Now he was back, and for all the solidity of his dark shape against the snow, and the insistent lines of his tracks, he seemed more apparition than ever. Our first season of the wolf may have been chance; now we knew he'd chosen this ground not once, but twice, deepening the mystery of this solitary wolf and his bond to this place.
There's plenty of that, right up to the end; and I don't think the page 99 test here prepares you--sure as hell not for the parts I can't even read quietly to myself without choking up; and when I've read those passages to audiences large and small, they sniffle along.

So, my final response to the test is a bit of yes, and enough no to balance it out. But really, the validity of the page 99 test is more for the reader to decide. As T.S. Elliot wrote in Four Quartets, "The rest is not our business."
Visit Nick Jans's website.

Read--Coffee with a Canine: Nick Jans & Chase, Brisa, Loki and Sal.

--Marshal Zeringue