December 22, 2016
One with the Tiger
by Steven Church
Soft Skull, 2016
by Michael Mount
There is something entrancing yet repulsive about watching the young Bronx zoo visitor, David Villalobos, leap from a caravan of tram cars and into the pit of a 400-pound Siberian tiger named Bashuta, who, though chained, possesses all the instincts of an apex predator. Villalobos emerged from the self-induced foray with only bite marks, having been rescued by zoo workers armed with fire extinguishers. It was with rapture, rather than scorn, that Steven Church, author of One with the Tiger, relates the episode of the man leaping over the barbed wire, wherein, in the author’s words, he wasn’t trespassing — he was going home.
It is this intrinsic fascination, this “very real and very human compulsion towards savagery,” that Steven Church designs to explore in his compelling, narrative-driven series of essays. Church carries the book-length narrative with his own imaginative, piercing prose, beginning as close to the action as possible with the episode of Bashuta in the Bronx Zoo, and leads us further into the wilderness of the least-tamed landscapes of North America. His essays, ranging in subject from Timothy Treadwell to Mike Tyson, are spliced with moments of tenderness and personal meditations on his own savagery, which he has tempered in the years leading up to and since becoming a father. It is as a specter that he is able to quickly move into the panoramic blues of the Canadian Rockies, where the filming of The Revenant took place, exploring, even rationalizing, the behavior of the grizzly bear that mauled the fictional William Glass. And it is with a critical lens — partly that of observer, partly envious method actor — that Church approaches these sublime encounters with savage predators.
Church relates that the impetus for the book was spurned partly by his brief stint as a volunteer for his colleague in the Mass Communications and Journalism department at the university at which he teaches, where he was solicited to “play” the role of Stephen Haas, a semi-fictional victim of a grizzly attack in Wyoming. The resulting research and extrapolation done on the author’s behalf amounts to the informative, often humorous, recollection of his dual role as subject and guinea pig to a journalism class. “What did it smell like, Mr. Haas?” a student asks him. “Like wet earth,” he relates. The responses that he gives to the questions that he was asked, about his experiences as the fictional attack victim, very much belie sympathy on behalf of the bear, gravity towards the wild, and “that prototypical western drive to test oneself against nature.”
The narrative at times possesses the stylings of Bill Bryson’s voice in A Walk in the Woods — ambling forward, often discovering its own course through a series of solipsistic and spontaneous route-taking. Other times the author approaches his subjects with a Melville-caliber fascination, cataloguing the etymology, physiology, and the habitats of the predators he describes. The research is painstaking and the collection of protocol for handling encounters with bears could indeed serve instructional purposes. And, just as the piece becomes didactic or prescriptive, Church skillfully plunges back into the personal, jovial narratives — returning to the lush darkness of the mountains. The tone of the piece is conversational by default, but soars to poetic meditations on the wild, and, facilitated by stories of the author’s own forays, effects a stunning exposition on “our place in the wider world of beasts who will consume us.”
Indeed, One with the Tiger oscillates rather seamlessly between first-person narration and third, leaping in and out of the author’s mindscape, exploring his own insecurities and his idols, building up and tearing down the projected heroism of larger-than-life icons. A primary portion of the case studies is devoted to Timothy Treadwell, the now-deceased explorer made famous as the eponymous subject of Warner Herzog’s documentary, Grizzly Man. The narrative rarely takes a wide-angle focus on the issues of human encounters with the wilderness, never endeavoring to tangle with political issues such as conservation or wildlife protection, but rather lingers in the sweat-soaked, bristling liminality of the encounters themselves. Church, through text, reconstructs the final moments of Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, then deviates once again into his own anecdotal experiences with grizzly bears, outside of his tent in Sequoia National Park. “We dwelled in that space of awe just before fear sets in,” he writes. “It’s a brief space, a transient state of being, but one that is undeniably seductive.”
One of Church’s primary assets as storyteller seems to be his acuity at rendering worlds, fictional or real, into an intertextual space with palpable ethos. His ability to spike these essays with a dosage of adrenaline mirrors his own conquest to toe the threshold of savagery, and his narrative darts away from the Western wilderness, at times becoming as myopic as anecdotes about his violent encounters with a rival center on his high school basketball team, and even his own flirtations with suicide.
The focus of the book fans out like buckshot, taking on subjects from the television show Manimal to The Incredible Hulk to Mike Tyson to Reservoir Dogs to David Lynch and his surreal fascination with the human ear, as evidenced in Blue Velvet. Church’s fascination with the sublimity of the predator, he claims, is not unique, but belongs to the “legions of disaffected young, middle-class white boys who grew up at the tail end of the Cold War (when things got really weird).” And though the essays are at times disparate in their subjects, their theme is consistently poignant and spot-on — that humans crave, even subsist on, encounters with savagery.
Recollections of Mike “Iron Mike” Tyson effect a heraldry bordering on a boyish sense of awe. So much of One With the Tiger, indeed, seems to be not only a study of predators, but a study of humans, and the curious, fetishistic obsession with terror and violence. Church explores that intertwining of voyeurism and savagery through turning his attention to the lucrative career of Tyson: “and they only want me to be an animal in the ring.” Much of Church's own internal dialogue and musings within the piece are attempts to determine where that ring exists, and who or what delineates those boundaries in modern society.
The narrator, at his most tender moments, is a light-footed version of Thoreau, a historian of the first degree and curious visitor to a world in which he revels, retracing the steps of victims and pilgrims that he has studied. Other times he is a wide-eyed consumer, equally as voyeuristic and wet-palmed as the men he writes about, painstakingly recreating scenes from Tarantino films, retelling the curious “zooicides” in which women and children fell to their deaths to be torn apart by captive predators, and rationalizing the “incontestable justice of savagery” that comes to light by the hands and paws of apex predators — from boxers to grizzlies.
If there is an atonement to this passionate, sometimes rambunctious, meditation on the wilderness and its role in the American psyche, it can be found in the final chapters in which the narrator returns to the Bronx Zoo, where the book opened, hoping to recapture the mindset of or at least empathize with the leaping David Villalobos. There is, predictably, no answer to the question of why we are drawn intractably to savagery and predators. The most potent question that One With the Tiger poses is whether we humans seek out predators in order to feel closer to the boundaries of life, or closer to those of death. Yet the question goes unanswered, and how could it not, given that the apostles of this sublime theology — the Timothy Treadwells and the Captain Ahabs — never return to relay the answer.