Reading Brian Kimberling’s debut novel, “Snapper,” is a fascinating and disorienting experience. The protagonist is Nathan Lochmueller, a southern Indiana native, who makes a meager living observing the effect of climate change on the region’s songbirds. The single square mile of woods that composes his domain is really a metaphor for the region as a whole, and Lochmueller moves through it with a mixture of familiarity and bewilderment.
“I tried desperately to gather the whole state around me and make it cohere,” he admits toward the novel’s conclusion, when he returns to his beloved woods after years away. “Indiana seemed hopeless,” he says, “a collection of turtle-shooting subliterates — people opposed to evolution, pluralism, and poetry. And yet. Those leaves.”
“Snapper” contains all of this: from the insidious remnants of the Ku Klux Klan, to finger-snapping turtles and stoned cats, to a woman who will dive naked into the “bright blue Ohio” river, despite being ravaged by Lyme disease.
On one occasion, Lochmueller’s car breaks down in a town called Santa Claus, where Maud, the owner of a nearby diner, helps him plug a radiator leak with egg yolks. She then offers him free coffee and shows him the piles of mail that children have sent, addressed to Santa. Lochmueller finds the situation so endearing that he helps Maud answer some of the letters. But he mistakes her cordiality for like-mindedness and ends up offending her.
On another occasion, when Lochmueller takes his friend’s dog for a walk at the local cemetery, the dog brings him a human femur. Alarmed, he calls the cemetery staff. “We’re a respectable cemetery,” they tell him. “We don’t lose bones.” Lochmueller is left to contemplate the philosophical and forensic implications of the object on his own.
Like Indiana’s leaves, the colors of Kimberling’s book are vivid, often startling, and so myriad that it’s sometimes difficult to focus on all of them. This is partly due to the novel’s quirky structure. It’s not just that “Snapper” reads more like a collection of linked stories than a traditional narrative; it’s that many of the chapters themselves read like loosely linked collection of episodic events, flashbacks and asides.
This is clearly deliberate on Kimberling’s part, especially because, at times, Lochmueller fools us into thinking that he is actually following a map. (At one point, he even gives his pregnant fiancee a driving tour of the state and leads her on a nature hike.) But Lochmueller is a wanderer at heart, and his tales of southern Indiana flit from event to event and character to character like the songbirds he studies.
Even if the detours are sometimes frustrating and all you really want is a regular map, it’s ultimately more interesting to just get lost in these captivating woods for a while.
Miller is the author of “The Year of the Gadfly,” out in paperback this month.
By Brian Kimberling
Pantheon. 210 pp. $24.95