Book review: 'Anthill,' by E.O. Wilson

(W. W. Norton & Company - W. W. Norton & Company)
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By Molly Gloss
Tuesday, April 6, 2010


By E.O. Wilson

Norton. 378 pp. $24.95

E.O. Wilson is one of the preeminent biologists of the past 50 years, a renowned expert on the social behavior of ants, winner of a host of scientific and conservation prizes, including the National Medal of Science, and author of more than 20 books, including two Pulitzer Prize winners for nonfiction. Now, at age 80, he is a first-time novelist.

"Anthill" opens with young Raphael Semmes Cody, nicknamed Raff, and his cousin Junior embarking on a Huck Finn-like river trip, hoping to spot the Chicobee Serpent of South Alabama legend and instead encountering a crazed, shotgun-wielding hermit called Frogman; it ends a dozen years later with Raff in those same forests, chased by a trio of homicidal, pistol-packing, evangelical Christians.

Between these adventurous framing scenes, Wilson unfolds a rather less adventurous plot. Raff's parents are an unhappy mismatch, his mother with deep roots in the aristocratic South, his father a redneck gun lover, "hunting anything legal that moves." Raff escapes from the tension and fighting at home by exploring the longleaf pine savanna of nearby Lake Nokobee. He joins the Boy Scouts, grows into a largely self-taught naturalist, becomes a standout student at Florida State University and is mentored by several like-minded adults. Increasingly, he worries about the fate of the wild lands around Nokobee -- real estate developers have their eyes on the lakefront. After acquiring a law degree at Harvard, he returns to Alabama to work for the survival of the old-growth forests from the unlikely position of in-house counsel for the largest land development corporation in Mobile. Eventually, his prominence in the local conservation community draws the attention of a religious fringe group.

Many writers have chosen fiction as a platform for celebrating the natural world -- think of Jim Lynch's "The Highest Tide" or Barbara Kingsolver's "Prodigal Summer." Wilson, writing from this new ground, might reasonably expect Raff's coming-of-age story to inspire the next generation of biologists, environmentalists and entomologists. But in a novel that sticks close to the familiar concerns of his nonfiction -- the culture and landscape of the Deep South, the mysteries and beauty of wilderness, the struggle to preserve biodiversity -- he sticks, as well, to the habits of a science writer. The different needs of fiction, unhappily, are often overlooked or clumsily handled.

Only a few scenes actually advance the story, but long stretches are given over to exposition. Details of the courtship and marriage of Raff's parents, his mother's complicated family and a cultural history of the Old South are reported in whole chapters that read like monographs. So, too, with most of Raff's years at Harvard, including his involvement with a radical environmental group and his heatless love affair with JoLane Simpson. Characterizations are thin, and dialogue for the most part is used to explain something.

There are many teacherly digressions, some only meagerly connected to the plot -- an explanation for the odd weather pattern around Harvard Square, for instance. Pages of description -- the mundane details of Raff's travel from Alabama to Boston -- have no inherent interest.

This is not to say "Anthill" is without charms. As you might expect, there are graceful, lush descriptions of the Nokobee wild lands, and some of the digressions, especially those having to do with the creatures Raff studies, are irresistibly fascinating. A long section of the novel titled "The Anthill Chronicles" is an epic tale of an ant colony and the several wars that follow when the queen dies of old age. It's daringly written more or less from the point of view of the ants, and almost everything we learn of the ants' enemies and friends, their memories and emotions and ways of communicating, their divisions of labor mirroring our own, is oddly engaging, even riveting. "The foibles of ants, Raff learned, are those of men, written in a simpler grammar."

Short, intermittent scenes between the human characters deliberately bring to mind the society of ants, and it's tempting, then, to imagine the novel Wilson might have written if he'd stuck with the insect world.

Gloss has written several novels, including most recently "The Hearts of Horses."

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