Homer Hickam's "The Dinosaur Hunter," reviewed by Carolyn See

By Carolyn See
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, December 3, 2010; 12:15 AM


Homer Hickam

Thomas Dunne 311 pp. $25.99

Back in the days of Louis L'Amour, when so many men still faithfully read Field and Stream magazine, there used to be a terrific boys' writer named Commander Edward Ellsberg, who wrote stories about grouchy but tender men who participated in the most dangerous adventures. (His deep-sea divers were sometimes afflicted with the bends - their entire bodies pushed up by mistake into their helmets, becoming nothing but bloody goo). But no matter what dangers Ellsberg's Heroes confronted, they usually stayed away as much as possible from two particular snares: war and women.

Homer Hickam's new novel, "The Dinosaur Hunter," includes women among his characters, and sometimes a cowboy slips into a camping tent with one of them, but that stuff is mostly a sideline. In the great tradition of L'Amour and Ellsberg, this is a guy's book, and it's mainly about digging up dinosaurs. The author came upon his material honestly. "My introduction to dinosaur hunting came through [film director] Joe Johnston," he writes. "Joe told me he was heading to Montana to work in the field with Dr. John (Jack) Horner, the famous paleontologist who is the technical consultant for all of the Jurassic Park movies. This sounded like an adventure, so it took me less than a second to ask, 'Can I go, too?' Big mistake. I tend to get carried away by adventures and, sure enough, that's what happened."

Hickam and his colleagues dug in a place called Garfield County, full of "ranchers, farmers, cowgirls, and cowboys." They made some important discoveries, and, as Hickam tells it, he loved every minute of the time he spent in Montana's "glorious badlands," and particularly loved the hours he spent in the Hell Creek Bar, a "grand watering hole" located close to the dig. His tone is lively, gregarious, the words of an old-fashioned, mannerly gent. And it's this endearing tone that carries over into his fictional counterpart in this novel, an ex-cop named Mike Wire, whose earlier career was cut short by a rain of hostile bullets. Mike has regrouped and found himself a new life on a Montana ranch, where he works as top cowboy and sole hired hand for a dour, widowed ranch-lady, Jeanette, who treats him like dirt, which is too bad, because he loves her. (It's actually convenient for everyone, though, because as long as she scorns him, he can't go to bed with her.)

As the novel begins, Mike and Jeanette are living the Montana ranching life. Rain, sleet, thunder and lightning put on a big show, and the two of them occupy themselves performing a C-section on a sorely afflicted cow. Along with these difficulties, it seems that ordinary Montana life is made up of skirmishes with the Bureau of Land Management, neighbors telling each other to get off their property, and preparations for the labor-intensive Fourth of July festivities, which in this case feature several heartfelt fistfights and a couple of murders.

But after Mike and Jeanette meet up with a paleontologist named Pick, the book is pretty much given over to the mechanics of dinosaur hunting: how these enormous and awesome fossils are first discovered, then carefully unearthed, then either sent to a prestigious museum for further study or sold to a shady character in the black market. The process of unearthing involves digging for days, then wrapping the bones in plaster casts, aluminum foil or paper towels.

As the sun sets, they fix dinner at the campsite and drink prodigious amounts of g&ts (the tonic is good for keeping malaria under control). The paleontologists and their enthusiastic helpers pass their evenings telling stories and singing old songs. At this particular dig, which involves a suspicious scientist from a nonexistent university, an asinine jerk from the Bureau of Land Management and narrow-minded Jeanette (whom Mike refers to as "the queen of the prairie"), the motivations are either a lust for profit or a yearning to further the cause of science.

No one knows whether money or science will win in this unseemly scramble for a spectacular set of old bones. But the author provides us with a multiple-choice display of equally spectacular villains who come along to gum up the works.

But the real fun is reading about people engaging in physical activity in an old-timey man's world. Wouldn't it be fun to be crouching under THE sun, brushing dirt off of 65-million-year-old bones, waiting for tonight's round of gin? Yes, there's very little mushy love-stuff here. The bulk of the action consists of getting bones into trucks and bones out of trucks and intoning, with quiet menace, "Get off my property!" Since no one is sure about what property belongs to whom, these threats become another wholesome plot thickener. And Mike does finally spend a couple of nights in a tent with somebody.

"The Dinosaur Hunter" is not profound, by any means, but it's fun, and if you don't already live in Montana, it's a perfect escape.

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