This spring I traveled with two of my professor friends from our hometown of Phoenix to a vacation getaway in the Chiricahua Mountains of southern Arizona. There we did what most writers and academics do while on holiday: we spent part of each day reading and writing. Early one morning we were at our usual posts. Prasad sat in front of his computer at the dining-room table; I was brewing another espresso in the kitchen before heading to a chair on the back porch. Dan had claimed the couch and was halfway through a novel. He was reading a chapter in which the central character, a young man named Jonathan, from New York City, visits his retired parents in Phoenix.
“Are there armadillos in Phoenix?” Dan asked, out of the blue. We looked across the room at him, a little startled and bemused. “Does the pope wear underwear?” I shot back with my own non sequitur. “No, I’m serious,” he persisted. “In the book, Jonathan and his father drive to a movie theater and it says here that they dodged dead armadillos on the road in Phoenix. And what about Joshua trees? It says here that Jonathan stood on a frontage road looking out at the freeway through a line of Joshua trees.”
“So far as I know,” I said, “Joshua trees grow mostly at elevations of 3,000 feet or more in the Mojave Desert. Phoenix lies in the Sonoran Desert at about 1,100 feet.” And the only dead armadillo I knew about in Phoenix, I explained, was the one I bought several years ago at an antique store. The whole animal had been turned into a purse, complete with a gold art nouveau clasp and ruby rhinestones for eyes. Maybe the writer was confusing road-kill armadillos with the husks of palm trees, I suggested, which often litter Phoenix streets after a storm. If you’re going 70 miles per hour on the freeway, the two might easily be confused. They are, after all, both brown and dead.
I later read the chapter with the armadillos and the Joshua trees. And sure enough, I stumbled across more eco-confabulations. At one point in the book, Jonathan and his father take a nighttime walk into the desert for a heart-to-heart conversation. Jonathan describes looking up at the sky “as the sickle shape of a hawk skated over the stars.” A hawk, huh? Hawks are sight-feeders, flying during the day in search of desert rabbits and birds. Could the writer have meant nighthawks, a bird that trolls the sky for insects, primarily after dark? They are unrelated species, as different as, say, a Wall Street broker and a kindergarten teacher. But I can see how the two birds might easily have been confused. After all, they both have wings and fly.
I’ve been mulling over these eco-bloopers for some time now. Like a dog with a bone, I dig them up every now and again, gnaw on them for a while, and then rebury them in the back forty of my study. Mind you, I’m not one of those readers who goes snuffling through the pages of a book hoping to catch the author with his pants down and then trumpets the fact that I know a butt from a hole in the ground. So why then can’t I just let them go?
It wouldn’t have mattered so much if the book were some cheap airport paperback. But it was A Home at the End of the World, the 1990 novel by Michael Cunningham, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for The Hours. On the back cover there’s an excerpt from a review in The Wall Street Journal that describes the book as “so finely pitched that even the smallest details are sharp-edged and vivid.” A review in The New York Times makes a similar point: “Michael Cunningham appears to believe … that ‘our lives are devoted to the actual,’ and that, in the rendering of those actualities, a novel discovers its themes.” The Times praised Cunningham for his “reverence for the ordinary, his capacity to be with the moment in its fullest truth.”
The fundamental issue here, I think, is not that Cunningham got the details wrong, but that he didn’t seem to care about getting them right. Neither did his publisher or editor or the critics. But what if Jonathan’s conversation with his father had taken place not in the Sonoran Desert but instead in the galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art? Would Cunningham have had his protagonist refer casually to, say, strolling past the Elgin Marbles? My guess is that this major American writer would not have conflated the British Museum with the Met. Nor would most of his readers. So what makes us think that it’s okay to play fast and loose when it comes to matters of natural history?
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