cover image NATURE NOIR: A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra

NATURE NOIR: A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra

Jordan Fisher Smith, . . Houghton Mifflin, $24 (216pp) ISBN 978-0-618-22416-6

Slated to be drowned by a dam, the California state park patrolled by the author of this haunting memoir is a "condemned landscape" of gorgeous river canyons hemmed in by exurban sprawl and peopled by eccentric gold miners, squatting families, drug dealers and miscellaneous drunken, gun-waving rowdies, a place where "turkey vultures floated... savoring the hot air for the inevitable attrition of heat, drought and violence." In his 14 years there, first-time author Smith encountered fights, beatings, suicides, daredevil canyon divers and the corpse of a woman jogger killed and half eaten by a cougar. His conflicted task of facilitating the communion of humans with the wilderness while keeping the humans civilized and the wild places wild becomes a mission against the "half-assed and watered-down... gray area" that is the modern world's "perpetual state of uncertainty." The clash of nature and civilization is a resonant theme, but it doesn't of itself yield compelling insights, and sometimes the author's essays add up to little more than shaggy-dog stories. But Smith writes with a novelistic sense of character, atmosphere and pacing, in a prose style that's wonderfully evocative of landscape and its effects on people. It will cause readers to both thrill and shudder at the call of the wild. Agent, Sandra Dijkstra . (Feb. 8)