by Claire Davis
During a recent lecture, Claire Davis described landscape as not solely backdrop for the main characters, but as an integral character itself. Like the protagonists, she said, landscape must relate to the readers' experiences, emotions, and heritage. Davis' prose exemplifies this statement--she is as adept at describing the fecund Snake River Valley as she is a fetid human corpse.
The opening of Season of the Snake presents Nance, a herpetologist by trade who, after a tragic event compelled her to move west from Wisconsin, is content with her new life in Lewiston, Idaho. She has steady work in the field studying native snake nests and a (seemingly) trusty marriage to a local elementary school principal, Ned.
With Nance frequently away on business, Ned bides his time at out-of-the-way drinking holes. While Nance's stories lead her to the majestic panorama of canyon lands and caves, Ned's are set in sleazy bars or back alleys, populated with the ugliest of the ugly. It escapes Nance that the snake she should be studying is sharing her bedroom.
The chapters that follow Ned's distasteful exploits recall Faulkner's Sanctuary--prose simultaneously nauseating and breathtaking: "He takes in the hairiness of the woman. The runnels of sweat and lines of grit. The wet sounds like exaggerated kisses. Clown's farts. The sticky smells congealing." Though Ned is undoubtedly twisted, Davis avoids making him into a caricature. A lesser author (Joyce Carol Oates, anyone?) might have made Ned a pedophile; instead, he is a fuck-up that can't be pigeonholed.
Davis excels at portraying landscape as indeed another character, but often to the detriment of the actual characters. The people are never fully developed, nor are their motivations clearly ascertainable. As a result, Nance and Ned are essentially backdrop... to the backdrop. Season of the Snake is a thrilling, often disgusting, never tedious read, however. Davis' still prose rivals any fiction writers today, and the emphasis on landscape doesn't detract from the plot, but rather furthers the notion that humans are just another paint splotch on the great canvas of nature, and not nearly as important as we think we are.