For some reason, this post did not go up in August when it was scheduled. My apologies to Mr. Drouin and the readers!
As I noted last week, No Other Way is about the search for a ‘grail bird’. Not, in this case, THE grail bird — the Ivory-billed Woodpecker — but for the Northern Stilted Curlew, a stand-in for the Eskimo Curlew (don’t worry — other birds are given their proper names, it’s just the main player who is in the witness protection program.) It is referred to as grail bird on the first page of chapter one — before the main character is called by name, before any other character is introduced at all. The fact of this grail bird is vital to the whole story.
A grail, of course, is not just a rare and interesting cup. It is something mystical, something holy, and most relevantly for this book, something that you quest for. A rare bird is a rare bird, but a grail bird is something more. Something worthy of epic. More and more often, I am seeing books in which birds are the magic rings, the elusive objects that control the fates of characters and, at least on a symbolic level, the fates of whole worlds. That is certainly the sense that is captured in No Other Way.
Also worthy of epic are the issues addressed here. Main characters Samuel, a wildlife photographer grieving his wife’s death, and Thomas, a forest ranger grieving the world’s more general losses, struggle to find the bird and save its last known habitat. In doing so they face danger and violence — and issues of scientific integrity. As the title suggests, these issues are forced to the very crux. The threat is fracking, making the the plot extremely timely as well.
Author Roger Real Druin understands and embraces the mind of the nature geek. Asides that in science fiction might be called info-dumps nevertheless abound with interesting facts about a huge variety of bird species, as well as some loving descriptions of both birds and landscapes. Where they represent Samuel’s internal thought process, they come across as just what it would be like to be in communication with a man whose whole solace is in going to remote wetlands alone. Thomas’s rage and his ability to recognize a kindred spirit in Samuel are also convincingly drawn.
Unfortunately, the book stumbles when it gets away from these strengths. Scenes with Samuel’s saintly artist son Ryan and his plucky-but-troubled girlfriend Karia add little to the proceedings, and dialogue with them and with other secondary characters is utilitarian at best. Despite time-and-place labels at the headings of chapters, I often found it difficult to reorient myself in new scenes, especially when there were jumps in time and place, or sudden transitions for past-tense narrative to present-tense chunks of bird factoid (it seems strange when one is actually writing to speak about still-true facts in the past tense, so I can sympathize, but in fact the best practice for holding onto the reader is to keep the past tense consistent.) The pacing, in particular, was torn between thriller-like urgency and the elegiac tone that characterizes much nature writing, leading to a disconcerting sensation of being unmoored in the narrative. Occasional infelicities and quirks in the writing, like an overuse of pronouns and descriptions in place of names and bursts of small print to indicate everything from internal monologue to radio broadcasts, did not help.
Author Drouin is a Florida-based journalist, and I’ve taken the liberty of reading some of his nonfiction as well. It is very solid, and indeed one of the best passages in No Other Way has close parallels in his essay on the Snail Kite. I would expect that his future works (and he already has another novel forthcoming,) as he gets more into the flow of long fiction, have real potential to find their balance and truly showcase his strengths.