Book World

Book World: Jennie Erin Smith's 'Stolen World' captures rascals in their element

By Carolyn See
Thursday, January 6, 2011; 8:08 PM

I'm trying to think of the best way to say how absolutely marvelous "Stolen World" is and wondering if the answer can't be found in the subtitle: "A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers, and Skulduggery." Yes, it's got all that, along with screwball comedy and a subtle, understated sermon on ecological values. But wait! - as they say in those zany TV commercials - there's more! At some point in her creative process, journalist Jennie Erin Smith has added, in semi-invisible ink, "And That Crazy Brother of Yours, Who Hides in the Basement and Plays With Mamba Snakes, Even Though He's 53 Years Old." Because reptiles, eternally repellent and charming, aren't really the main subject here, even though they're a constant ingredient. And petty crime, although wonderful to read about - especially if it's not happening to you - isn't the central theme either.

No, it's the guys - and even as I type these words, I'm laughing: It's the guys who grew up fiddling with snakes, when everybody else in the class was out playing baseball, or the guy (in this case, one of the protagonists, aptly named Hank Molt) who drives around in a car with a gila monster in a paper bag on the seat beside him and absently puts his hand in the bag: "Gila monsters hang on and chew," the author reminds us, "grinding in their venom, and the pain was enough that Molt ran his Jeep off the road and ended up in a rural Georgia hospital, which he escaped from the next morning without paying."

"Stolen World" is a crazy history of the past 50 years of the reptile trade around the globe, but you could say its larger and loftier theme is the futility of much human endeavor. We meet underachieving, anti-social, weirdly attractive geeks whose circle of friends includes "fellow reptile dealers, carny snake handlers, kids from the suburbs, small-time poachers with something to unload." Out of this field of lowlifes, the author chooses Molt (as grumpy as the gila monster who bit him); Tommy Crutchfield, who seems a little more largehearted and a little less inept; and Crutchfield's sidekick, Edmund Celebucki, "a prison guard, a karate instructor, and a dedicated thief of antiquarian natural history books which he would liberate from public libraries and sell to specialty dealers."

Men like these have to find ways to make a living, and since they grew up isolated and staring at snakes and their scaly relatives, it stands to reason that they'd go into the reptile business, buying and selling these creatures among themselves and to various collectors, museums and zoos. What turns "Stolen World" from sober, well-researched nonfiction into a wacky comedy is that these men are at once stunningly innovative, dizzyingly incompetent, quite sociopathic and very low on bookkeeping skills. Doing business in a respectable way is too boring and utterly beyond them, and so they find themselves in one pickle after another - stuffing half-dead baby pythons into cigarette cases, painstakingly rolling iguanas up into tube socks, and enduring encounters with customs officials across the world: "I had reptiles in my pockets and a six-foot diamond python balled up in the small of my back," Celebucki recalls. "They're running their wand over me and and hit the python. The guy's squeezing it - it's in a little tight bag. The guy said, 'What is this?' and I didn't know what to say, so I said, 'It's a tumor.' " Celebucki gets through unscathed.

This shady business couldn't continue without steady infusions of money from collectors and zookeepers who are just as in love with reptiles as the smugglers themselves, and thus, over the '60s, '70s and '80s, the illicit trade in exotic creatures flourished. To be fair, explaining the concept of honesty to these guys would be about as futile as tutoring them in the theory of relativity. They just don't seem to carry the honesty gene. It's like they're playing "Grown-Up Criminal." They compile elaborate price lists of rare reptiles they don't possess, or they bundle up shipments of, say, 100 snakes, except 48 of them are already dead. Buyers are forever not paying up, and sellers are forever planning vendettas to get revenge on the people who cheated them, and everyone is furious with everybody else. And there they live, day after day, in their "stolen world."

This is all disgraceful, of course. Real animals are suffering here. And dozens of zoos with impeccable reputations are committing crimes. But the author refuses to moralize or judge or look at the sad side. In her acknowledgments, she thanks Hank Molt "for being ruthless and intelligent . . . one who 'stood up for evil in the Garden.' " She's captivated and enchanted by these goofy men, and if you're feeling a little lawless, this book is a treat.

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A Tale of Reptiles, Smugglers, and Skulduggery

By Jennie Erin Smith

Crown. 322 pp. $25

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