Monday, March 10, 2014


The Atavist
Kindle Single, $2.99

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: In 1910, the United States—its population exploding, its frontier all but exhausted—was in the throes of a serious meat shortage. But a small and industrious group of thinkers stepped forward with an answer, a bold idea being endorsed by the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and The New York Times. Their plan: to import hippopotamuses to the swamps of Louisiana and convince Americans to eat them.

The only thing stranger than the hippo idea itself was the partnership promoting it. At its center were two hard-bitten spies: Frederick Russell Burnham, a superhumanly competent frontiersman, freelance adventurer, and fervent optimist about America’s future—Burnham would be the inspiration for the Boy Scouts—and Fritz Duquesne, a.k.a. the Black Panther, a virtuoso con man and cynical saboteur who believed only in his own glorification and revenge. Burnham and Duquesne had very recently been sworn enemies under orders to assassinate each other. They’d soon be enemies again. But for one brief and shining moment they joined behind a common cause: transforming America into a nation of hippopotamus ranchers.

In American Hippopotamus, Jon Mooallem brings to life a historical saga too preposterous to be fiction—a bracing and eccentric epic of espionage and hippos, but also of a conflicted nation on the threshold of a bewildering new century, deciding what kind of country it would be, and what beasts it would eat.

My Review: This Kindle Single, produced by The Atavist...which company creates quite a few of these not-quite-enough-to-make-a-regular-book very long articles...was a whimsical purchase. American HIPPOPOTAMUS and Teddy Roosevelt and the Original Boy Scout?! It's like they mapped my brain and found all the crannies that need filling before putting this, and many of their other, projects out.

Mooallem (great name, don't you think?) found this weird little footnote in history heaven-knows-how, but I am glad he did. The more-or-less 70pp of the story don't give him all that much latitude to develop the sheer blinding weirdness of his tale into tedious show-your-work detail. He hits the high points and moves on, following the two central characters of Burnham and Duquesne from sketchily traced origins to endings. The men are documented fully in other books, as they deserve to be. This isn't intended to be a dissertation on either of them, or of their weird plot to introduce hippos to the swamps of the Gulf Coast...HIPPOS! they kill more people every year than sharks! solve something I'd only very glancingly heard tell of, "The Great Meat Crisis" that was afflicting the US a hundred years ago.

I know for a fact that the water hyacinth problem the hippos...hippos! can't get over that...were meant to help solve is ongoing, and the importation of exotic animals to help solve it is still bandied about. Austin, Texas, was all gung-ho to introduce sterilized Asian carp into one of its lakes to eat the damned weeds. A scary, scary prospect. Those are some very nasty fish with no local predators and no food value that I know of.

Anyway. Mooallem was obviously struck by the audacity of such a plan, and by the world that could imagine such a thing working well. He sums up the appeal of this read quite well and succinctly:
I'm not arguing that America would be a better or more beautiful place if it had imported hippopotamuses in 1910. But there is something beautiful about the America that considered importing them--an America so intent on facing down its problems, and solving them, that even an idea like this could get a fair hearing; where the political system and the culture felt so alive with possibility, and so confident of its own virtue and ingenuity, that elected officials could sit around and contemplate the merits of hippo ranching without worrying too much how it sounded; where people felt free and bold enough to imagine putting hippopotamuses in places where there were no hippopotamuses.

Somewhere along the way, our politics, and maybe our psyches, too, became stunted by a certain insecurity--by the fear that someone is quietly sneering at us, just waiting to skewer and betray us if we take a bold chance.
Well, well, well. Someone other than me noticed! Of course, the advantage to that timorousness is the guarantee of the supine acquiescence of our potentially rich populace to the damnable and insufferable rule of the banksters and plutocrats. Know what finally killed the hippos-in-Dixie plan? (Other than good fortune, can you even imagine the horrors of hippos charging through New Orleans?!) The nature of harvesting the meat (don't get that image too stuck in your heads) meant that the gigantic meat-packers couldn't use their huge slaughter houses and assembly-line methods to cut and pack the meat.

That, obviously, cannot be allowed. No more than could the egg farmers afford to acquiesce to the proposal, made around the same time, to replace fragile, quick-to-spoil hen's eggs with turkey eggs that have a larger volume of albumen, more yolk, thicker shells, and a vastly longer unrefrigerated shelf life.

Such, laddies and gentlewomen, is the nature of life in a "democracy" that's run for the benefit of the few against the interests of the many: pay more for less, and be grateful you're allowed to have it at all.

Ahem. The cost of this good evening's read is $2.99, and it's a darn good investment in an amusing side-light onto American history and human nature.

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