Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Mysterious Skunk Ape

Tony Earley's "The Cryptozoologist," in the 01/09/06 issue of The New Yorker, is a funny, warm story set in the mountains of North Carolina, one of my favorite places on Earth.

This is primarily the story of Fieldin, an art professor turned unsuccessful artist, and Rose, his wife, former student, and junior by 25 years. Much of the story is presented as backstory about their relationship. A story that relies heavily on backstory requires a turbocharged sense of mystery up front to fuel the reader's interest, to keep him or her slogging along through the character histories. Earley knows this, and hits us with not one but two things to worry about in the first two paragraphs: first, Wayne Lee Cowan, an abortion clinic bomber, has disappeared into the local hills. The FBI is in pursuit; will they catch him? Will he strike again, kidnap Rose, commit some other dastardly crime? As Rose, already waiting by Fieldin's deathbed, stands on the back porch and contemplates these questions,
a figure separated itself from the shadow of one of the trees and strode quickly through the orchard toward the mountain. The figure was large and broad-shouldered, long-armed and stooped. It had some kind of silver stripe running the length of its back. Until it turned to look over its shoulder at her, Rose didn’t fully appreciate that the figure not only wasn’t Wayne Lee Cowan but wasn’t even human.

Wow. What the heck is that thang?

It's a Skunk Ape, apparently an Appalachian version of Bigfoot. Does it really exist? Will there be another encounter? After Fieldin dies in the third paragraph, will Rose hook up with the friendly FBI agent? Let me just say this, and I say it with gratitude: no skunk ape dies during this story. The dead animal trope is, for once, avoided. Although... if the animal is not real (and we don't know that for sure) does Earley get full credit for his restraint?