'Bigfoot,' Joshua Blu Buhs; 'Loch Ness Monsters and Raining Frogs,' Albert Jack
Saturday, May 2, 2009
The Life and Times of a Legend
By Joshua Blu Buhs
University of Chicago. 279 pp. $29
LOCH NESS MONSTERS AND RAINING FROGS
The World's Most Puzzling Mysteries Solved
By Albert Jack
Random House. 247 pp. Paperback, $15
That truth is not required to make a splash in the media might be a new wrinkle in our political discourse, but it's old hat in the realm of urban legends. Take the uproar over Bigfoot -- a.k.a. Sasquatch, Yeti, the Abominable Snowman -- the hulking hairy hominoid who supposedly haunts the damp, scratchy forests of the American Northwest and the snowfields of the Himalayas. Even though no Bigfoot has ever been captured, dead or alive; no footprint has ever been authenticated; no credible image preserved on film; no hair, nail or dropping tested positive, the monster refuses to die.
Independent scholar Joshua Blu Buhs concedes in his intermittently engaging cultural history "Bigfoot" that he started the project with a "vague kind of skepticism" over Bigfoot's existence and ended with firm disbelief. No matter. Buhs's real mission is to track not the creature itself but rather its shadow in the popular imagination. And this he executes with commendable zeal and infinite patience. Buhs even elaborates a high-minded sociocultural-economic thesis to give the enterprise weight and authority. "Stories about Bigfoot were a way for [working-class] men to confront and work through their anxieties," to "feel powerful" as they reclaimed their "dignity" from "elite" skeptics, to prove that they "understood reality, its workings better than scientists."
Fortunately, for most of the book, Buhs leaves that thesis in the background and focuses instead on the adventures of a large, loopy cast of misfits, dreamers, drifters, hucksters, passionate amateurs and wild-eyed anthropologists. Swiss-born René Dahinden read a piece about the Abominable Snowman two months after immigrating to Canada in 1953 and decided on the spot that he'd found his calling. "It seemed that maybe I'd been searching all my life for a chance like that," he said later. Dahinden left his wife, kids and any hope of a normal existence to pursue Bigfoot, but a lifetime of searching turned up nary a footprint. Roger Patterson, a debt-ridden confidence man from Eastern Washington, captured Bigfoot on film in October 1967 -- or so he told Hollywood producers to whom he tried (and failed) to peddle his few seconds of grainy footage.
As the fruitless hunting parties, dreary academic conferences and fringe Web sites drag on, the whole business begins to seem shoddy and embarrassing. Buhs does roll out some entertaining stories, lots of strange lore and a few valuable insights, but he ends up straining too hard for meaning. Brawny and crafty though Bigfoot may be, he just can't stand up under all the baggage Buhs piles on him.
Popular debunker Albert Jack devotes a chapter to Bigfoot in his whirlwind endeavor to solve "the world's most puzzling mysteries" in 200-odd pages. But unlike Buhs, this breezy self-appointed "mystery buster" steers clear of ideas, cultural context or sociological motives. Urban legends, unsolved crimes, quirks of nature and supposed miracles elicit only one question in Jack's mind: Did it really happen? If he can squeeze the answer into a few "short, sharp, informative sections you can read on the train," he's done his job. If he can milk it for a few laughs, so much the better. Jack combines the skeptic's raised eyebrow with the wink and leer of a British music hall MC.
After 12 pages skimming some of the same ground that Buhs stomps for entire chapters, Jack concludes that Bigfoot was nothing but a hoax perpetrated by lugs out to have fun. With tongue in cheek, he races from the rumor that Paul McCartney died in 1966 to the high incidence of aviation and boating disasters in the Bermuda Triangle to the true cause of Marilyn Monroe's death. If these and other assorted freaky occurrences have been bothering you, Albert Jack's your man.
But frankly, for all his heavy breathing and chest-thumping, I'd rather run around the forests chasing Bigfoot with Mr. Buhs. Call me elitist, but I'll take an earnest theorist over a glib nose-thumber any day.
Laskin is the author of "The Children's Blizzard" and the forthcoming "American Crucible: How the Great War Transformed an Immigrant Generation."