The heroes of Peter Heller’s novels live on the boundaries between modern bustle and the natural world, equally comfortable (or uncomfortable) in each. They know paradise has been lost, but they still try to carve out a piece of what’s left: a perfect day of fishing in a bubbling brook, or a perfect view of a wolf pack in its natural habitat. They long for human contact, if only the greedy, stupid, and desperate representatives of the species didn’t come with it.
The semi-natural man at the heart of “The Last Ranger” is Ren, an enforcement ranger with the National Park Service trying to keep the peace between the visitors of Yellowstone National Park and the residents of nearby Cooke City. Ren tries to get along with everyone, but the two-legged creatures make it pretty difficult. As the novel opens he’s dealing with a drunk driver who has just run over a buffalo: “The bison was on his right side in the gravel of the shoulder, breathing in rapid strained snorts, and Ren put a hand on his neck and said, ‘I’m sorry, bud. I’m so sorry. Better them than you,’ and he meant it.” He definitely means it. “It was the anger in him that scared him,” Heller writes. “The more time he spent in Yellowstone, the more he wished that people would just go away, leave the bears, the herds of elk, the foxes, the hawks alone.”
Fat chance. Heller’s protagonists have a way of finding trouble, par for the course of a literary thriller. In “The Guide,” a Colorado fishing guide stumbles into an insidious conspiracy nestled among the trout, a hotbed of power and greed mucking up the beauty and the wonder. Ren finds something similar in “The Last Ranger.” It starts with a hulking, sneering hunter with a past almost as pained as Ren’s, a former University of Montana football star who has taken to illegal poaching for profit (those pelts fetch a pretty penny). It extends to a secretive organization that meets at a local barbecue joint, where the wealthy hobnob with the aggrieved and plot very bad things. Heller’s novels bring to mind an eco-friendly version of a ‘70s Hollywood thriller, in which a lone figure goes up against plots and forces that he doesn’t quite comprehend.
Ren has one close friend, Hilly, even more inclined toward non-human company than him. She’s a park resident as well, a renowned authority on wolves, which she observes and studies with ascetic focus. Ren and Hilly are kindred spirits, so when she is nearly killed, after stepping in a bear trap almost certainly intended for her, Ren’s thoughts turn to vengeance. This does not play out like you might think. Heller’s novels don’t really go in for mass bloodshed or vigilante justice. These are deliberative, thinking-person’s thrillers, almost gentle, suspenseful but usually not keen on Big Moments. The dramatic showdowns tend to aim toward redemption and muted resolution. Heller is no misanthrope. Neither is Ren. He’s just a lonely guy looking for a life that can quiet his mind, or maybe help him outrun his past.
Heller writes in lean, descriptive, contemplative prose that often reflects a spirit of solitude. At one point in “The Last Ranger,” Ren seems to long for the experience of literally disappearing into nature: “Is that what he wished for after all? To vanish? Maybe everyone did. He would think later that the sensation was the closest thing to becoming pure spirit. Which, oddly, brought a sense of fullness and relief. Why, then, did we fight death so hard?” Ren, like his literary creator, is a philosopher at heart; you get the feeling he’d do just fine hanging with Thoreau at Walden Pond.
And yet, perhaps to his disappointment, he also needs human contact. As he makes his rounds, chewing the fat with some park staff here, grabbing a cup of coffee there, Ren emerges as a sort of emissary between two worlds not quite at ease with each other. Some of the tourists just want to see how close they can get to a bear (or a moose, as in one almost-disastrous incident). Others seem to share his concern for the Yellowstone ecosystem. The townies get understandably sick of the leering hordes; some are resigned to the glut and the spectacle, while others are less forgiving. Ren is content to float through it all, until, as has always been the hero’s fate, he is pushed into action.
The thrills of “The Last Ranger” lean to the quiet side, but they should resonate with any thoughtful reader who considers the human relationship to the world that was here before we arrived, and, hopefully, will be here after we shuffle off this mortal coil. As Ren asks, why do we fight death so hard? For this ranger, it’s a matter of basking in one more sunset, or observing one more wolf, of staving off the loneliness he paradoxically craves.
THE LAST RANGER
By Peter Heller
Knopf, 289 pp., $27
Chris Vognar, a freelance culture writer, was the 2009 Nieman Arts and Culture Fellow at Harvard University.