Brian Kimberling’s “Snapper” is a phenomenal book, quietly profound and as entertaining as any book I’ve read in the past five years. More startling, it’s a coming-of-age story by a debut novelist. If you’re like many book consumers, that phrase will make your eyes glaze over, and it’s fair to wonder if readers really need another story about a young man easing from innocence into experience.
But I’d urge readers to cast aside their doubts and succumb to the satisfactions offered in “Snapper,” which centers around Nathan Lochmueller, a still-young man looking back and narrating, through a series of inconsecutive vignettes, the years of his life from roughly college through his early 30s. The details are almost comically insignificant and banal: He was in love with a beautiful woman named Lola (yes, reader: the one that got away); he had, after graduating from Indiana University with a philosophy degree, gotten a job as a songbird researcher, for which he spent hours tramping through woods, specifically one square mile of woods; he spent all of his time in Indiana, a state with which he has a conflicted relationship. That, truly, is the full list of modest ingredients: Lola, birds, Indiana.
But oh, what Kimberling does with those strands. The tone is both wry and tender: “The Michelin Guide to Indiana by Nathan Lochmueller is real short. Everything’s flat, everyone’s fat, and you can’t buy beer on Sunday. That is all you need to know. But I admit that sometimes you do run across a colossal Santa Claus on the highway.” Even as he’s knocking his state, you can feel Kimberling pulling punches, letting his eye catch on the redemptive or funny detail along with the bleaker bits. Aside from tracking songbirds and Lola, Nathan eventually spends time in jail, and suffers an injury on his way down a staircase that prevents him from being able to do his birding job, plus there are tornadoes and snapping turtles and a human bone found at a cemetery. The book is contemplative, certainly, but far from a navel-gazing affair.
Were “Snapper” simply a novel of a young man reflecting on his early adulthood, it would be a success, but what makes it a great book is the grace Nathan Lochmueller finds. At book’s close, Nathan returns to Indiana for the first time in awhile (he’s moved to Vermont), and he sees Lola again, and both activities leave him deflated, underwhelmed: These monuments of home no longer pull at him as they once did. Kimberling articulates, better than anyone I’ve read, the sorrow that arises from trying to find the magic of one’s youth with the original ingredients.
Weston Cutter is an assistant professor at the University of St. Francis in Fort Wayne, Ind.