52 Titles: John Vaillant’s “The Tiger”

I bought John Vaillant’s first book, The Golden Spruce, because it was on one of my reading lists in fourth year. Stupidly, I never read it for class (sorry, Bill!). Part of why I decided to read a book a week this year was to finally catch up on all those books I’d bought and parked on my shelf. When I finally did read it, I loved it so much I gave copies of it as Christmas presents to, like, three people the following winter. (The Tyee had a great two-part Q&A with Vaillant on the book, here and here if you want the gist of it.)

When someone says that truth is stranger (and more compelling) than fiction, he is speaking of stories such as the ones Vaillant so deftly retells. While his two books have been categorized as science non-fiction or environmental books, they are much more than that — they are about the elemental between man and nature. Like a man who so deeply loves nature that he cuts down a sacred tree to make a statement about the logging industry and, ultimately, what it is our society values. Or, how an animal so hunted that it breaks from its natural, human-shy disposition to become a man-killer.

With these mythological themes behind a writer, you’ve got the makings of an epic read. Turns out predatory animals don’t like being hunted down by impoverished Russian men who stalk them, half-drunk, in the freeze and powder white of Siberia, to re-sell their pelts on the black market. Maybe this one male tiger, half-starved to death from trying to make it through the winter, decides, Fuck it, I will do away with regular Amur tiger behaviour and eat a human, because they are trying to kill me, and plus I am hungry. Eventually, the modern roles of man/hunter and tiger/hunted are reversed, arguably to what they should always have been.

Still, the book stumbles a bit towards the end — something about the way the characters end up doesn’t quite seem right for readers expecting an epic outcome to an epic set-up. The “nature’s revenge” tale must, practically, come to an end. I don’t think I’m spoiling the book by telling you what most logically happens: it’s not a Hollywood blockbuster ending, there is no David conquering the modern food chain Goliath. In the end, men with technology (i.e. guns) win, and the tiger dies. But that’s not the fault of the writer; I don’t think that can be changed unless events happened any other way. Sometimes, it just is what it is.

One final bit of fan-gushing: several months back, I, like a total armchair critic/snot, complained on Twitter that he misused the phrase “begs the question” on page 184. Then he wrote me a super apologetic email thanking me for “persisting in spite of all” and finishing the book despite his lingual failing!!! (And just now, having dug up that email, I realize I never replied to him like the total asshole I am.) Shit! Like, in what world does a writer apologize to me for that? Good dude. Good book. You should buy this and The Golden Spruce and give them to a friend for Christmas.

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One Comment

  1. melinda hodgins
    Posted November 2, 2013 at 10:18 pm | Permalink

    What a very disappointing and melodramatic account of the slaughter of an old, wounded beast. Dishonest and stupid. I hate this kind of macho crap.

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