MEAT EATER: Adventures From the Life of an American Hunter
For the typical urbanite, feeling disdain for gun owners is about as easy as broiling a boneless, shrink-wrapped chicken breast: They’re hicks. Red State rubes. Mowing down Bambi with their assault rifles. Meanwhile, we meander the supermarket aisles, poking around for grass-fed this or free-range that, floating in a cloud of ethical contradiction and denial.
Without breaking it down this polemically, Steven Rinella, in his memoir, “Meat Eater: Adventures From the Life of an American Hunter,’’ rigorously describes his trajectory from unexamined to intensely reconstructed killer of wildlife, a progression that should assist the typical city slicker in replacing categorical dismissal with something more akin to nuanced understanding.
Rinella begins his chronicle as an adolescent play-acting Daniel Boone in Michigan among a family of fishermen and hunters, gradually morphing into a college kid trying to make a living as a trapper, after which he transitions into a grown man who just loves to hunt. He’s now a television personality who hosts the Sportsman Channel series — gulp — “MeatEater.”
Are we possibly sniffing out, in fact, holding, a real live marketing tie-in?
Still, this book should not be so easily dismissed. It’s evident from Chapter 1 that we are in the hands of a seriously experienced hunter-gatherer and writer, which translates on most pages to very authentic-feeling reenactments of the hunt, including both its inherent vibrancy and distress. And critically, we witness Rinella’s evolving sense of what all this killing might mean.
Acutely conveyed are the ways society is elbowing aside an age-old practice, often bloody and brutal, and replacing it with practices numbingly antiseptic and increasingly unreal. By the end, regardless of how you feel about guns or hunting, its appeal has ironically been made alive. It’s the perfect negative image of our pervasive technological moment — bracing, dangerous, and direct rather than mediated, packaged, and disassoci-ated.
But beware: The patience of a cunning hunter is required. Though Rinella’s writing is unerringly smart, direct, and sharply detailed, hunting tales are hunting tales. At times, it’s not unlike listening to someone describe their dreams — riveting to the dreamer, less so to the listener. And this book is stuffed with such stuff.
The best of these yarns, it must be said, are lusciously summoned — or nauseatingly documented, depending on your taste for hunting. And the variety of locales Rinella visits with his rifle (or bow or rod) is impressive. It becomes quite astonishing, the deeper you get in the book, just how many lives one man can extinguish, whether raccoons, turtles, squirrels, otters, muskrats, bears, mountain lions, sheep, foxes, or grouse. The list goes on and on and in quadruplicate. Unsettling though this omnivorous appetite for killing may be, Rinella reveals, page by page, the small and large components that constitute the underlying motor.
Another saving grace is that Rinella both fore- and backgrounds these stories with the dense complexity of nature. Each of his small-bore narratives, whether it unfolds on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Montana, Alaska, Arizona, or Mexico, bristles with the magic of a specific, authentic place.
Between chapters there are riffs on what it’s like to eat different wild animals, most of which do not sound terribly appetizing. The true pursuit turns out, perhaps not surprisingly, to be less the meat — even if ethically aware Rinella insists on respecting each animal in the eating — than the hunt itself. In the final chapter, Rinella and his brother hunt blacktail deer. Upon returning to New York (where he lives in Brooklyn Heights), he watches people eyeing his gun case. “What are you doing here?” they seem to be thinking. “Why are you among us?” It’s a testament to this book that you now have an idea of the answers.