Nathan Lochmueller has spent his time in the wilderness, and in Brian Kimberling’s beguiling debut novel, “Snapper,” he invites the reader to join him. When we meet him, Nathan has just landed his first serious post-college job, collecting field data about songbirds in the Indiana woods. He is also madly in love with the elusive Lola, a red-haired beauty who, coincidentally, got him this job. The two pursuits are not exclusive, and both, it turns out, will belong to a period that the narrator looks back on in depth, and fondly, but not without regrets.
Told in vignettes rather than a straightforward narrative, this coming-of-age story darts through time like an elusive thrush through the trees. From the first page, Nathan is already reminiscing. His boss, we are told, “is a Princeton professor now. Back then he was a PhD candidate surveying the effects of habitat fragmentation on neotropical migrant songbirds in south central Indiana.” In a similar vein, the book’s scenes flit back to boyhood adventures, including one interaction with a snapping turtle, in between his adventures with birds and Lola.
This disjointed structure could be confusing, but Kimberling’s keen attention to detail makes it work. When Nathan is caught in a tornado, for example, he notes how comparing the roar of the wind to that of a freight train is akin to “comparing a wolf to a beagle” and then goes on to recall actually sitting under a train trestle, with Lola and “a brace of beer.” When called upon to euthanize an injured bird, he describes not only his preferred technique but also his reaction to this necessary procedure. “Ten seconds later it was dead,” he notes. “For those ten seconds, however, I did not feel very enlightened or humane.” The result reads like a string of vivid short stories, linked by their protagonist.
Uniting them further is the way that Nathan’s narrative focuses on the way people speak. At times, he echoes the diction of those around him, as in the case of that pedantic boss and his dissertation-ready job description. Other times he reports on it, as with his Uncle Dart, a rural Texan whose words don’t quite mean what they seem to. But the spoken word has its unspoken limits. Nathan’s boss, for example, doesn’t want to hear about Nathan’s affair with Lola, and Lola certainly doesn’t want to be questioned about her private life when she’s not with him. Even as a boy, Nathan recalls, not everything could be said aloud. When he and his best friend meet up with a newcomer who asks what the two boys are doing, his friend says,
“‘We got a boat’ ” because “ ‘We talk about poetry’ would have been asking for trouble,” Nathan remembers.
This attention to speech makes sense in context. Nathan’s job, after all, depends on his hearing. But although he becomes quite good at tracking songbirds, the 20-something character suffers from a selective deafness to humans. When meeting new people — strangers in a cafe or a hunter in the woods — he misreads cues, leading to painful regrets. With Lola, of course, he is often intentionally deaf, not wanting to hear that she only intermittently returns his interest.
Ultimately, it is his hearing that forces him to move on, and not until he returns, years later, can he at last acknowledge what he missed before. It’s a sad awakening, but it puts the rest of the book into perspective. Youth is beautiful because it is fleeting — and also, perhaps, because we have not yet been forced to face the truth behind that alluring bird song.