Book Review: The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac
by Sharma Shields
Henry Holt, 2015
It’s easy to imagine a wry novel that merely chronicles one man’s lifelong obsession with finding Bigfoot, that primordial punchline from the wilds of Canada and the American Northwest. It’d be just as easy concocting a tale from the missing link’s perspective, or a deadly serious treatment about the beast’s destruction that panders to our addiction to camp (see 2010’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter). But writing about Bigfoot from only one of these angles is like donning a Halloween costume and then staying in your room. Thankfully, Sharma Shields (Favorite Monster: Stories, 2012) has kicked down the door and decided to cartwheel through the sprinklers; The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac flirts with readers’ expectations even as it clambers past them.
Shields reveals the life of Eli Roebuck, starting in 1943, when he’s nine-years-old and living in a cabin with his parents between Washington and Idaho. While his workaholic father Greg is, well, you-know-where, his mother Agnes allows Mr. Krantz, her friend from the nearby woods, to visit. As Eli meets this “most interesting man,” he can’t yet feel his life banging a harsh left turn. He’s distracted by,
an enormous ape crushed into a filthy pin-striped suit. He remembered a book from school about exotic beasts, the giant apes who lived in the savage countries of the world, and the guest resembled those creatures: deep hooded brow, small blank eyes, thin-lipped mouth like a long pink gash. And the hair! The guest was so hairy that Eli was unsure of the color of his skin: Beneath the thick brown fur, his flesh—tough and charred, like strips of dried deer meat— appeared red in some places, purple in others. The guest even smelled of hair, badly, like a musty bearskin rug singed with a lit match.
A gamy passage, making the nostrils twitch and giving hope to the ‘Squatch-obsessed that Shields will delve into the creature’s hidden life with some factual diligence. But…let’s not forget the pin-striped suit. Also, Agnes leaves Eli and her husband to live with Mr. Krantz in the woods.
This decision by Eli’s mom ripples outward, tainting the lives that follow with hairy melancholy. The narrative proceeds through the years, stopping at our Flawed Hero’s defining moments, illuminating more Weird along the way. Early on, this refers to Eli and Greg’s new dog, who loves the boy but disdains the father. Eli names the dog Mom. Such a tableau might make quirky fiction’s reigning queen Karen Russell (Vampires in the Lemon Grove, 2013) spit-take her Mountain Dew. Yet, Shields keeps her characters from becoming cartoons with this straight-from-the-heart assessment:
Anyone could love. Anyone could say they loved their husband or child or wife or dog. They could be out in public and behave with perfect respectability, so that people would say, as was often said of his wife, What a wonderful person. What a wonderful mother. What a wonderful, calm, loving woman. Anyone could perform such an act. But to actually love, to love enough to commit to unhappiness, that was real love.
Another word for this: sacrifice. Agnes wants to lose herself to crazy sex and blackout drinking, but only Greg understands that such behavior doesn’t benefit—and might even harm—Eli. So, rather than parent, she lives in a woodland shack with the ape-man, presumed dead by her loved ones.
How does Eli fare? With his teeth deep in that juicy bone of irony, he grows up to become a podiatrist. He spends the 1950s courting and marrying a shrew named Gladys, with whom he struggles to have a child. When a daughter is finally born, Eli believes his wife had always wanted to name the baby Camille (like her grandmother, and childhood horse)—but he’s wrong. After a miscarriage and a still-birth, Gladys doesn’t want to be reminded of dead things. “Better the name of a missing person, someone lost but maybe, one day, found.” Amelia it is.
The several chapters focusing on Gladys are when Shields holds the ‘Squatch bait high, then lures us out of the woods in search of stranger creatures. And sometimes we find them! In a curiosity shop, when Gladys buys a hideous patchwork cap that’s supposed to make the wearer irresistible to her heart’s desire—but instead cooks her scalp—there’s a galloping sense that this novel is actually short stories, cleverly knitted together by the theme of “missing links” in our lives. The characters continue making pointedly ironic snipes at each other, like when Gladys complains about Eli’s time spent founding S.N.A.R.L. (his Sasquatch research group), she says he’s “Leaving us for an ape. Leaving us for an imaginary monster.”
Gladys doesn’t know the sad truth driving Eli, and he eventually stops understanding her. Tension mounts as we realize that Amelia will suffer the most from this situation. But we suffer, too, during the chapters set in the mid-70s, when Amelia is a noxious, by-the-numbers teen who drives off in a stolen car with an older man. Following her is a mundane detour, resulting in an underwhelming sense that this novel is actually short stories, and not all of them fit.
Yet cannily, Shields knows that a sweeter emotional payoff lies in gradually seeing Eli’s life unfold through divorce, remarriage, and a lengthy dedication to finding Mr. Krantz. A story top-heavy with Sasquatch humor—like when the beast contemplates a bowel movement with, “Only a thing as big and powerful as me would deposit such a smelly shit here! I am amazing!”—risks becoming unbearable.
By the end of Eli’s journey (and the novel), the lives of his two daughters and two wives also lay neatly before us, like ornaments culled from a woodland kingdom. And despite the unicorn sightings and babies snatched by eagles, these lives seem dingy, real, and shaped by decisions that multiple generations of family members have made. The danger, Shields warns, is in realizing too late that decisions can be unmade.