Knopf, 2000
ISBN: 0-679-43455-0
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Barry Lopez read from his book, Crow and Weasel, that had just been published. The audience consisted mainly of schoolchildren, one of whom asked the author what his favorite animal was. Without missing a beat, Lopez answered, “People.”.
         At the time I considered his answer a little too pat. But looking back now, and considering the work he has done since that time, I think his answer was at least sincere and at most revealing.
         Barry Lopez is often considered one of America’s premier nature writers. But where other authors of that genre focus on the natural world as their subject, Mr. Lopez more often chooses to examine the place of human beings within the natural world.
         That is certainly true of his new collection of short fiction, Light Action in the Caribbean. In it, Mr. Lopez explores themes of landscape and how it shapes character and memory, the debilitating effect of violence, and the transcendent power of imagination. Whatever the theme or subject matter of each story, its importance resides in its relationship to the lives of individuals..
         The idea of landscape and its relation to memory and individual attitudes is a common one in Mr. Lopez’s work. It recurs in various ways in this collection. In “Remembering Orchards,” a man recalls his stepfather and how he had a deep and instinctive understanding of the filbert orchards he tended. In his youth, the man has no esteem for his stepfather’s wisdom. But as he grows older, he comes regret the differences between them that were never resolved. He learns to admire his stepfather not only because he worked with the land but also because he acquired wisdom from that work.
         This idea appears in a slightly different way in “The Mappist.” In this story, a man encounters a book about Bogata, Colombia that is so perfectly written it captures the soul of that city. The narrator seeks out the author and finds that he, like the stepfather in “Remembering Orchards,” understands the physical world in a very profound way..
         One of the most revealing illustrations of Mr. Lopez’s view of man’s place in the world appears in “The Bend in the Souris River.” One day, while on horseback exploring his family’s ranch, the narrator encounters a Native American man, also on horseback. In describing this encounter, the narrator refers to “the four of us,” meaning himself, the other man and the horses on which they were mounted. Once again, we are presented with the view that people are not at the center of the landscape. They are merely a part of it.
         Two of the stories in this collection deal with violence, both as a consequence and as a force in people’s lives. In “The Deaf Girl,” a young woman who has already lost her hearing in an accidental shooting encounters a young man who has a strange fascination with her wound. Ultimately, this fascination leads him to shoot her a second time. In “Light Action in the Caribbean,” a young couple’s vacation to the Caribbean ends horribly with the rape and murder of both husband and wife.
         Mr. Lopez’s prose style serves these stories well. His descriptions of violence are very matter-of-fact, almost reportorial. By avoiding heavily graphic language, he allows the true horror of these events to present themselves to the reader.
         Alongside stories about the depths of human nature are two stories that revel in the heights. In “Emory Bear Hand’s Birds,” a prison inmate recalls a day when a flock of birds gathered in the prison yard and eventually flew away as one. In the end, the prisoners are afforded a kind of vicarious, and perhaps even real, escape.
         “The Construction of the Rachel” continues the theme of imagination, transcendence and escape. In this story, a man recovering from a painful divorce joins a monastery to find order in his life. He begins to build a model of a nineteenth century sailing vessel called the Rachel. Little by little, his model comes closer to being a perfect replica of the ship. In the end, it becomes so perfect that it ceases to be a mere model.
         Barry Lopez once said that it is possible for a writer to create a character that knows far more than he or she does. Many of the characters and situations in these stories are far removed from any experience the author could have had but their voices ring true nevertheless. As a result, we are left with stories that can speak to us again and again, always changing as we change, and always growing deeper and more meaningful with each reading.