Nick Neely, Coast Range, Counterpoint Press, 2016

Reviewed by Dave Mondy

[Review Guidelines]

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.
     This essay says something important—but says it in brisk brushstrokes. Short snippets of prose, about four lines long, separated by line breaks. These brushstrokes are poetic—but, better still, they're fun. This is collage-style essaying at its most enjoyable, never belabored.
     The conceit: the piece pretends it's a simple How To Guide, a field guide, for dealing with pesky coyotes. Guidance for, say, a cattleman hoping to fend off, kill, or confound these creatures. But the coyotes are never referred to as "coyotes"—they're always called (capital-C) "Coyote." And so, Neely lends a knowing, mystical mischief to these animals, as if writing about both a Trickster and Canis latranus—but this never gets cute. Mostly, it just works. The piece piles up oddball facts, rude attitude, and guidebook patois, like:

Let's keep in mind that Coyote warrants management in part because he feeds on calves by eating into the anus or enteric region. The coprophagic son of a bitch absolutely loves it. He can't wait to do it again. "Up yours!" says Coyote—his mantra.

If you find a dead lamb, calf, or foal and suspect Coyote, first examine the neck and throat for subcutaneous hemorrhaging. Typically, bites to a dead animal do not cause hemorrhaging, although this diagnosis is unreliable if the carcass is old or widely scattered.

     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:

M-16? How about M-44. This spring-loaded booby trap shoots sodium cyanide into Coyote's open mouth when he clamps down on a baited capsule. Death occurs within seconds—dead serious. Unfortunately, the effectiveness of the M-44 is hindered somewhat by EPA regulation in the interest of human and environmental safety. Additionally, it may kill your dogs.
Introducing the 1080! The 1080 Livestock Protection Collar selectively kills Coyote. Each twenty-dollar LPC holds three hundred milligrams of Compound 1080 solution. When Coyote bites your livestock's jugular—ha!—he punctures the collar and swallows a lethal amount of toxicant. No Coyote—fuck you!

     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:

Where aerial shooting is legal and the den is in open terrain, wait until Coyote's little ones venture outside to frolic and doze in the open sun for the first time, then decimate Coyote and his progeny all at once, like a hailstorm from an empty sky. Think "video game."

Denning is cost-effective. Bullets are cheap. Coyote will sell them to you at bulk. I mean come on, now. Don't be a sucker: Can't you see it was Coyote who invented the gun?

     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.
     Imagine receiving a New York Times Magazine (or, really, any prestige print mag; imagine receiving an Atlantic, a Harper's, or a whatever-magazine-you-might-personally-subscribe-to-and-to-which-you-ascribe-an-excess-of-gravitas). Imagine the cover flopping down atop your end table. Well, it's not that hard to imagine that the byline—printed too small beneath a brash graphic—would be Neely's. The pieces in this collection suggest, with some alterations, that they could appear within said mag. Such are their power, competence, etc., etc., etc.

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:
     Back to "The Book of Agate"—the second essay in this collection. Just like the "Coyote" essay, this essay is composed of extremely short sections—here, they're often only a line or two—separated by line breaks. Sure, the piece starts out with the author contemplating his agate collection, but these contemplations quickly expand, encompassing much more, so much more, with topics including (but not limited to!): Carl Jung, inkblot tests, Annie Dillard, the history of precious gems, in general, and in particular: an especially precious moment shared by the author and his beloved.
     Unfortunately, here, this reviewer/reader ran into a cruel equation: The more the author wanted a moment to mean something to me, the less effect it had. But then, instantly, the obvious meta-structure of Neely's essay suggested a way forward. It's obviously meant to mirror its subject: A collection of small pieces worn down by time. Each entry is to be, perhaps, a piece of prose as compressed as an agate. Okay. But imagine a very smart friend showing you a special collection of… whatever. Would you give every piece the same attention as the curator, or would you feign excitement at times, only getting truly interested in a few pieces?
     So now, give yourself permission to just skim "Agates," just reading a few choice lines, like:
     "Collections, I've read, often begin with a gift or serendipity. Rarely are they planned. But once that first item is in hand, others accrue as if by their own volition."
     And later:
     "Large agates are sculpted into cups and figurines, or simply halved to serve as bookends. Others are cut so delicately that they look like a slice of salmon."
     And so:
     I wondered if "Agates" was, ultimately, a wonderfully worthwhile essay: You just have to let yourself pick up and hold whatever parts interest you, forgetting the rest. If you gaze at every agate, the essay might feel slow—but so many of these agates, individually, are damn stunning. I said earlier that the relationship bits left me cold—and yet, there's this entry, near the end: Before I could roll my eyes, I found myself misty, transfixed: "As she turned her face in the low western light of a Yachats evening, she looked young and striking. Her skin seemed carnelian in the orange glow across the Pacific, and her laugh crashed over me, as it has so many times. We shared a beer." 


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!