Nick Neely, Coast Range, Counterpoint Press, 2016
Reviewed by Dave Mondy
How to Read Nick Neely's Coast Range If You're Allergic to Nature Writing:
1.) Flip forward to the sixth essay, "A Guide to Coyote Management"
Admire the cover, the cut-paper motif, that's fine—but don't flip to the back jacket. Don't read the glowing reviews. And don't—I can't stress this enough—read the author bio found in the back flap. Simply skip ahead to "Coyote Management" and enjoy yourself.
Neely keeps the reader fascinated with the current facts of coyote management, however gruesome—facts fascinating because they're gruesome. Pages later, we learn of:
These snippets accumulate, eventually begging reader questions, like: "What's up with our sadistic relationship with these animals? Is this okay? Are we being monstrous? Reasonable? What?" Thankfully, wonderfully, right when you'd expect Neely to go there—to work his way into a diatribe—he doesn't. The essay argues without arguing. Instead of moralizing, Neely just builds, builds, until finally focusing in on the killing of coyote cubs, concluding:
And right there, the reader is left alone (as the essayist flies off, I imagine, in a helicopter or prop plane). Neely might've nudged our opinion a bit before flying off—the cute cubs, after all, "frolic and doze"—but mostly, in this essay, he just offers up brushstrokes. Sketches of quick facts, quick impressions of a mindset. He lets the reader decide what they will. If this essay seems slightly like a nature essay (and it is), if it seems like an artsy collage (and it is), well, more than anything, it's this: The literary version of a Buzzfeed Personality Quiz. It's instantly accessible, filled with weird facts—but the reader's reaction is the most revealing part. It's a great essay. Like I said, read it first.
2.) Next up, select a long form feature-style essay:
Conveyed in a more traditional, less lyric style than the above, many pieces in this collection recommend themselves to readers uninterested in Nature Writing simply because they contain compelling, nonfiction-style storytelling: "The Afterlife" offers cinema-ready dialogue as Neely tries to navigate the fraught waters of spawning salmon—while also navigating the fraught interactions of humans surrounding the salmon with their own ceremonies (with some corresponding insights into capital-D Death). Or, for example, there's "Gone Rogue, or Suck It Up." It starts out, early on, with some Studs-Terkel-style exposition of working class men performing dirty jobs—but ends with Neely himself taking a plunge into a much-dredged Rogue River, the geographic center of his book.
3.) Finally, decide if you want to read the piece on the author's agate collection
Yes, that's actually what the second piece in this collection is about. And I understand if that turns you off—because it certainly turned me off. In fact, if that topic doesn't turn you off, I suspect you're someone who already loves introspective Nature Writing, and therefore, you're not the target audience of this review. We'll deal with you after the next line break. And speaking of line breaks:
How to Read Nick Neely's Coast Range If You Generally Like Nature Essays:
1.) Just read it.
2.) Seriously, this isn't that difficult.
If you genuinely like nature writing, there's no reason to skip this collection. Most of the authors you like have already endorsed it. I told the non-Nature Writing fans to skip the back cover, but if you like Nature Writing, you should take a gander. There's some seriously laudatory quotes from some seriously great writers here: for example, Alison Hawthorne Deming says, "What a superb writer Nick Neely is and just the kind of natural history observer we need in a time of fierce change." There's many quotes on the back jacket like that (though that one should be enough); but just in case you'd like some more (capital O) Official sources, both Kirkus and Booklist are into this collection, too. The latter says, "This is the sort of introspective writing that will appeal strongly to readers seeking to gain a deeper appreciation of their environment, and those with curiosity about or longing for the region he knows so well." Nice. Neely really does know his region.
3.) So why listen to me?
Seriously, I'm generally allergic to Nature Writing, so my endorsement should be worthless—or is it the opposite? Falling into the "if even this guy likes it" category. If so, one more How To:
How to Read Nick Neely's Coast Range If You Don't Hate, or Love, Nature Essays
1.) Just read it
If you generally enjoy well-written essays, regardless of genre, there's a lot to love here.
2.) Keep any small objections to yourself
In a different era, there might be time to complain about the fact that a few of the nature essays might get boring, at times—sacrificing velocity, as nature essayists are sometimes wont to do, for the sake of facts and quiet observation. But now? Those small vices seem like virtues. So, again:
3.) Just read it!
If I had to clarify my (slight) critique, I'd just add: Neely seems blessed with such abundant gifts that he could, and does, stretch past the unfair confines of "nature writer" at times, to reach out to anyone and everyone—and don't we need that, now, more than ever? Similarly, though his structures occasionally seem experimental, they're often instantly accessible, too. His "Coyote" essay, to bring this back to the start, is a great example: "Coyote" (with a capital C) could certainly be classified as Nature Writing (capital N and W)—but even those indifferent to the genre can easily buy in. And though the piece is composed in a "lyric essay" way, you don't need an MFA to enjoy it. It's got great internal logic, and it leads a reader through its subtle paces effortlessly. So, to end with a slight suggestion: I'd hope Neely continues to push even further in this direction, making the unconventional ever more accessible, and making the Nature Essay ever more appealing to all readers. But that's just a single critic's suggestion (and I suspect, even hope, that any strong writer worth their salt would respond to a critic's suggestion the same way as clever Coyote: Fuck you!). And so, I'll just end by saying: Mostly, I hope Neely just keeps doing what he's doing. The thoughts and sentiments within his pieces deserve a wide audience. So, one more time, say it to me:
4.) Just read it!