Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Red Hourglass!

Our book today is Gordon Grice’s mesmerizing 1998 thriller The Red Hourglass: The Lives of Predators. This is electrifying, horrifying stuff – Grice takes a close look at the predatory tactics and the encounter-lore of a few common predators in the natural world: spiders, snakes, mantids, and, interestingly, pigs and dogs. We get brief, intense natural histories of the black widow, the tarantula, the rattlesnake, and – in this great book’s most indelible chapter, the brown recluse spider. And like all the best strong, impressive writing, it has unintended side-effects: after you finish The Red Hourglass, you won’t pay an anxiety-free visit to your basement, patio, or attic – to say nothing of the great outdoors – for about a year. And this effect is evergreen: reread the book after many months, and you’ll still be out for another full year.

Part of the secret to this dark magic is the fact that Grice picks omnipresent creatures as his subjects, rather than, say, the great white shark or the grizzly bear. He picks animals you often don’t have to make any special effort to meet (especially if you live in the American West and Southwest). In fact, reading his book you’re reminded of that old saw of natural history books, that no matter where you’re doing your reading, you’re probably not more than five feet from a spider of one variety or another. In the grip of The Red Hourglass, you’ll become certain all of those watching spiders are venomous.

He studies the black widow spider as a passionate amateur who’s caught and kept several throughout his life and never been bitten. He recounts in fearful detail the agonies healthy adults tend to experience upon being bitten, and you can tell he revels in the fact that genuine mysteries lurk in the exact method of that agony:
The venom contains a neurotoxin that accounts for the pain and the system-wide effects like roller-coaster blood pressure. But this chemical explanation only opens the door to deeper mysteries. A dose of the venom contains only a few molecules of the neurotoxin, which has a high molecular weight – in fact, the molecules are large enough to be seen under an ordinary microscope. How do these few molecules manage to affect the entire body of an animal weighing hundreds or even thousands of pounds? No one has explained the specific mechanism. It seems to involve a neural cascade, a series of reactions initiated by the toxin, but with the toxin not directly involved in any but the first steps of the process. The toxin somehow flips a switch that activates a self-torture mechanism.

There’s the same grisly, respectful fascination in the chapter on rattlesnakes – he points out what anybody who’s spent any time in out west will confirm: each rattler’s personality is different. Some will go out of their way to avoid even indirect proximity with humans, while others will seek out a confrontation. Some are meek, others flagrantly aggressive (although Grice keeps his focus pretty much squarely on the United States, this same dichotomy is true of the cobras of India – except for the part about any of them being meek). And all are potentially harmful, even the young:
Rattlesnakes are born venomous. They can already hunt for themselves. My father once reached into a patch of grass and was struck on the fingernail by a baby rattlesnake. The nail eventually blackened and fell off. He suffered no other effects. Some people claim young rattlesnakes are more toxic than adults. Possibly the explanation for this paradox is that young rattlesnakes show less restraint in using up their supplies of venom when biting defensively. A certain medical student, assuming the young harmless, handled one. He showed off for friends, telling them how ironic it is that such an emblem of fear could be handled freely. That’s the way most people get bitten: an urge to handle fire. These days the young doctor has nine fingers.

The curveball of The Red Hourglass is its inclusion of pigs and dogs, two species most people might not at first classify as predators. The chapter on pigs does scarce justice to their gentle intelligence, but to be fair, Grice spends most of its pages talking about wild boars. And the chapter on dogs … well, it has some interesting personal recollections about sharing a town with a large pack of feral dogs, but as for the rest-let’s just say Man’s Best Friend continues to be one of natural history’s most persistent mysteries (which is another way of saying what we’ve said many times before here at Stevereads: dog-writing done by people who aren’t me tends to have lots of problems). My biggest chuckle is always the part where Grice interviews a man in Special Forces training who talks to him about facing a canine guard dog in mano-a-pawo combat:
Your big dogs go for the throat. I’m talking Doberman, German shepherd, most of the ones used as attack dogs. You put your arm up to protect your throat. You let him bite your arm, but you fall back with his momentum. As you fall, you put your other forearm just behind his head. As your back hits the ground, you’re bringing your knees and feet up to push him up over your head. Basically you’re giving him a monkey flip, and you’re holding your arms rigid. His mouth is hooked onto one arm, the other’s behind his neck, and as he flips his momentum snaps his spine. One dead dog. Not hard to do, but you have to sacrifice your arm. You’re okay if you’re wearing a thick jacket. If not, your arm gets pretty torn up. You could bleed to death.

Hee. See? I’m chuckling again. So the thing you learn in Special Forces training is that when you’re attacked by a large guard dog (the elasticity of whose neck muscles and tendons is roughly four times that of a human), the first thing you should do is lay down on your back and expose your abdomen and genitals. Why, that’s downright sensible! You know, sometimes I think the much-vaunted ‘Special Forces training’ we civilians hear so much about consists entirely of learning how to bullshit on epic levels. I’m 100 percent certain no Special Forces op ever used this preposterous ‘let me wrestle with you before you disembowel me’ tactic, but I’m equally certain the guy Grice interviewed told it all to him with a straight face and an earnest voice. That’s expert training for you.

Grice accurately reports that dogs are second only to humans as killers of humans – their sheer ubiquity makes virtually every human around them careless, so the fatalities are much higher than those of black widows or tarantulas or rattlesnakes. And fatalities aren’t really even the main issue in the book’s most grotesque and striking chapter, on the humble brown recluse spider. The brown recluse is exactly the kind of crack-and-crevice-dwelling creature you could almost certainly find in your room right there at home, if you were foolish enough to go looking. It’s a shy, retiring creature, but its venom contains an even bigger mystery than the extreme toxicity of the black widow’s bite. The bite of the brown recluse doesn’t poison flesh: it kills it. And the toxins involved somehow prevent the body’s natural systems from cleaning the wound – with the result that bite victims often have an open, suppurating gap of dead flesh to deal with for the rest of their lives, from a bite so tiny nobody ever remembers getting bitten. Grice finishes his gruesome, hypnotic book with his account of this animal and its bizarre defense:
The flesh affected by a recluse’s necrosis never heals. Somehow, the venom turns off the immune system and the body’s capacity for repairing itself in that patch of flesh. The victim can only hope the dead area stays small. But sometimes it doesn’t.

Despite its disturbing subject matter, The Red Hourglass is a book you should most definitely read. Grice is a master prose stylist with a perfect ear for the pace of drama. Just be prepared, once you’re done with the book, to live in a less comfortable world for about a year.

1 comment:

JC said...