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REVIEW: Predators I Have Known by Alan Dean Foster

REVIEW SUMMARY: An entertaining, sometimes uneven collection of vignettes laced with humor and a little surprise, but one that falls short of its goals.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A mixture of travelogue, adventure biography, and reflections on the hazards and wonders of encountering a variety of predators. Predators I Have Known is full of interesting anecdotes about Foster’s decades of globetrotting in search of the most dangerous wildlife to be found in locations ranging from rainforests, seas and savannahs to his own driveway.

PROS: Forthright, clear writing, suffused with an inviting, playful tension; some fascinating moments of human-predator close encounters.
CONS: Repetitive; lacks a cohesive progression.
BOTTOM LINE: There are some satisfying stories that bring us face-to-face with these predators, and while some incidents are less thrilling or humorous than others, the book generally maintains your interest.

Alan Dean Foster treks into new terrain with this book: it is non-fiction, personal, and details a part of his life that has existed in the background of his work. For most of his career as a writer he has also been a traveler, specifically seeking out predators in their natural habitat to engage them directly, to “step outside the bounds of the familiar” and experience that contact with physical immediacy. Predators I Have Known is a very particular sort of travelogue, a compendium of extreme moments. Foster quests for a connection between himself and these creatures, one that is simultaneously exotic and expected, strange yet, eventually, routine.

“There is,” he writes early on, “inestimable beauty in such encounters,” and with this as the framing idea for his book he plunges into a series of short, pithy stories that tell us of his assorted meetings with big cats, sharks, snakes, spiders, and other wild hunters. The first tale, of a too-close encounter with a tiger, sets up the book’s timbre and rhythm. Foster varies the starting point of the stories to some extent, but they share an underlying structure: bringing the reader into the environment of the predator; detailing the moment of encounter; and then a brief denouement where he discusses the effects of the encounter.

For the first several stories this is satisfying, but around the middle of the book I felt less pleasure from the episodes. There were moments (perhaps unavoidable) of repetition of feelings, of how situations played out, even of how he often forgot to load his camera and capture some of these precious encounters. While Foster tries to keep his sense of wonder fresh, and it does come through, for the reader there is a accumulation of similarities that becomes less exciting. The second half of the book was less enjoyable than the first, except for two stories that were amusing, lively variations on his usual encounters: swimming with giant otters and being hospitable to a tarantula that invades his property in Arizona.

What made these moments more gratifying were their deviation from the sameness of most of the stories, and of an added personal level to their telling. While Foster frequently talks about the jolts and awe his experiences give him, these often boil down to “I got close to animal X, and was excited for a moment.” There is a summary quality to his range of experiences that homogenizes them after the first several chapters. Foster writes with clarity, but often without elaboration, and this style tells us clear facts, but does not give the reader the fullness of the emotional and visceral power of the moment. It is in the more distinctive episodes that we gain greater empathic insight into why Foster does this, and what he gets out of it.

The tone is sometimes playful, sometimes educational, tacking between avuncular and expert voices. Foster does not paint himself as heroic and is happy to detail the problems of this venture as well as the rewards. Despite a romantic framing, the stories themselves have a casualness to them, a friendly, inviting quality. While this eases us into the specific situation, it adds a somewhat prosaic feel to the individual encounters. By the end of the book, when Foster quickly discusses some of the effects of this traveling on his work, you don’t feel the same level of energy that he started with, and the effects have to be told to us, rather than arising out of the experiences that he has written about.

In the end, I did not see that “inestimable beauty” throughout the book. It was fun to read about some of his exploits, but I did not feel I learned all that he hoped to showcase through this rare set of experiences.

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