The magazine The New Yorker will publish a contribution to fiction entitled “The Cryptozoologist” by Tony Earley, on the 9th of January 2006, but it is online now. Here’s my early literary critique of this effort at capturing cryptozoology in The New Yorker:
We are introduced to the concept of Skunk Apes, cryptozoologists, and organized cryptozoology in one specific paragraph about midway through this fictional piece:
About her Bigfoot sighting, Rose learned that such creatures were routinely spotted in all of the Southeastern states—although the scientific authorities of course denied their existence—and the animals were commonly referred to as skunk apes, because of the broad white or silver vertical stripe on their backs and their notoriously disagreeable odor. Southern skunk apes were generally known to be smaller, but meaner, than their Pacific Northwest counterparts. Rose gathered all this information from the Internet, from a Web site posted by a group calling itself the Cryptozoological Study Association (C.S.A.), which was devoted to documenting the existence of heretofore undiscovered primates south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Studying these reports gave Rose something to think about besides Fieldin, at whom she unexpectedly found herself violently angry. Late at night—when she just wanted to kill Fieldin, and was stymied by the fact that he was already dead—she gratefully followed the C.S.A. links to cryptozoological Web sites all over the world. (The Norwegian site had particularly stunning photographs of fjords, although she couldn’t understand the text; the Albanian Web site had pictures of naked women.) When she gave the C.S.A. a thousand dollars of Fieldin’s money, she received an effusive thank-you letter, spattered with exclamation marks, naming her an honorary cryptozoologist.
Could someone be so silly in such a short passage? Apparently so. The author, Mr. Earley, has done only half his research and then decided to throw in various jokes. I know, I know. You perhaps think I am being too concrete in my review, but gosh darn, some facts should be retained and kept straight, especially if you are going to call your fictional story, “The Cryptozoologist.”
Take for example how Earley describes the Skunk Apes. You see, Skunk Apes, while he is correct that they are seen in the southeastern United States, do not have a white or silver vertical stripe on their backs, as do the weasel family’s skunks. That’s a distraction that verges on derailing the reader. What’s wrong with just acknowledging the single truth that the “Skunk Ape” name comes purely from their smell.
Are Skunk Apes aggressive, as the author notes in this tale? There seems little evidence for this. Yes, Eastern Bigfoot-type reports from the upper Midwest have shown that they are not especially pleased by dogs and have been in an attack mode, now and then. But the more anthropoid, chimpanzee-like Skunk Apes are timid and more curious than agressive.
As to there being a Cryptozoological Study Association (C.S.A.), well, this is fiction, and we would not expect nonfiction organizations to crop up in such stories. So having a wholy created cutely named group makes sense. But the author is being very subtle and clever here too. Most Southerners will get this little bit of sharp humor. However, for the benefit of the many international readers of Cryptomundo, let me explain: there’s an “in-joke” within the name’s initials and the fact it documents cryptids “south of the Mason-Dixon Line.” The “C. S. A.” is a hidden code to Southerners for The Confederate States of America, the Confederacy that fought the Union during the War Between The States or the United States Civil War in 1861-1865. In the South today, the C.S.A. remains a remarkably active symbol of independence and more.
Of course, one subcontext of the story is about the bombing of an abortion clinic and the bomber hiding in the hills of North Carolina – sound familiar? – but the Skunk Apes and the new cryptozoologist are in the mix too. That’s what we are concentrating on here, because, of course, we are Cryptomundo and the title of the story is “The Cryptozoologist.” But we understand the understated politics of this piece too. And the passion and love subtheme too.
But back to cryptozoology. Deeper into Earley’s tale, near the end, I read that our heroine, if she encountered a Skunk Ape again, had a plan in which she…
would take a picture of it and post it on the Internet. She would be a world-famous cryptozoologist. She would get the entire mountain declared a skunk-ape preserve. She would be the goddam Jane Goodall of skunk-ape studies.
There’s no reason to dwell in fiction on the fact that you politicially would have to work months, if not years, on getting a piece of land set aside as a preserve, or that people won’t believe you “actually” took a photograph of a Skunk Ape, anyway. Too much reality in that, and, indeed, Earley grabs hold here of what I have heard many people say and feel as they get closer to the cryptid they are pursuing. Reality is a harsh maiden, and there is no reason for Earley to side track his story that way.
Hey, this is a fiction, this is a story, and Tony Earley, at several levels, is to be congratulated for taking a woman character and making her a cryptozoologist with a mission. The end of the story should not be ruined by a reviewer, so if you wish to read the entire piece and learn how it concludes, find “The Cryptozoologist” online at The New Yorker.
After you read it, let this cryptozoologist know what you think, via whatever format you wish, as I am interested, very interested, in others’ insights on this story. Have a good fictional cryptoday, all.