The Di­nosaur Hunter by Homer Hickam, Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martins Press, 311 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - — Su­san Mead­ows

Homer Hickam suc­cess­fully con­veyed the thrill of rocket science with his mem­oir Rocket Boys (trans­formed by Hol­ly­wood into Oc­to­ber Sky), about the child­hood hobby that ul­ti­mately led to a ca­reer at NASA. The sub­ject of his grown-up hobby cre­ates the fo­cus for his lat­est novel. Mon­tana is the spec­tac­u­lar back­drop, and mur­der is the hook. If you don’t mind a lit­tle may­hem, the drama­ti­za­tion of science has the po­ten­tial for in­tel­li­gent en­ter­tain­ment — when they get the science right. And if In­di­ana Jones spent lit­tle time hun­kered over a square frame sift­ing dirt, he at least in­spired a gen­er­a­tion with the ro­mance of an­cient worlds hid­den un­der desert sands and jun­gle veg­e­ta­tion.

Hickam gets the science right. He is per­son­ally re­spon­si­ble for the dis­cov­ery of a rare ju­ve­nile Tyran­nosaurus rex while vol­un­teer­ing on digs with one of the lions of pa­le­on­tol­ogy, Jack Horner, in the Mon­tana bad­lands. A pos­si­bly apoc­ryphal story about Horner is that he holds up a di­nosaur bone in class and asks for guesses as to its iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. Stu­dents sug­gest dif­fer­ent species and anatom­i­cal iden­ti­fi­ca­tions, only to have Horner dis­miss them all, dra­mat­i­cally smash­ing the bone into bits on a ta­ble. It is noth­ing, he says, be­cause it was taken out of con­text. If Hickam doesn’t re­late that par­tic­u­lar Horner story, he nev­er­the­less learned the les­son well. His di­nosaur hun­ters keep care­ful field records with pho­to­graphs and maps, col­lect­ing even the small­est bone frag­ments as they ex­ca­vate re­mains in Mon­tana’s bad­lands be­fore care­fully pre­par­ing them in plas­ter coats for trans­port.

Hand­some, charis­matic “Pick” Pick­ford — a pa­le­on­tol­o­gist with a se­cret — and his two lus­cious re­search as­sis­tants (both smart and tough) lead this team of hun­ters. Pick is prone to dreamy ru­mi­na­tion about “deep time,” pa­le­on­to­log­i­cal short­hand for a pe­riod more than 65 mil­lion years ago, when the ap­prox­i­mately 40-foot-long T. rex reigned. If I winced read­ing Pick’s over­heated mono­logue on di­nosaur love as he imag­ines a T. rex de­fend­ing its nest — de­spite the fact that T. rex nests have not yet been dis­cov­ered (though nests of other di­nosaurs have) — his camp­fire sto­ry­telling and the dig scenes bring to life our cur­rent un­der­stand­ing of di­nosaur bi­ol­ogy. In­cluded is some of the de­bate over whether T. rex was a scav­enger or a hunter, giv­ing us an­other pos­si­ble in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the book’s ti­tle.

But the mys­ter­ies of deep time aren’t the only mys­ter­ies here, and the dead found on the Square C Ranch aren’t lim­ited to po­ten­tially valu­able di­nosaur bones. The clear-eyed nar­ra­tor of the tale goes by two manly mono­syl­la­bles — Mike Wire. He once stalked the mean streets of L.A. as a homi­cide de­tec­tive, but 10 years as head wran­gler on the Square C have trans­formed him into a lik­able, if cyn­i­cal, cow­boy with a sense of hu­mor and an un­spo­ken love for his boss, Jeanette Coul­ter. The fact that the iron widow Coul­ter runs the ranch with a steady eye on the bot­tom line and lit­tle de­tectable af­fec­tion for Wire be­yond his use­ful­ness dims his feel­ings not a wit. Hol­ly­wood, take note. Sexy paleontologists, mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar bones at stake, and a Sam Spade stand-in cow­boy/de­tec­tive with an aching hear — check, check, and check. When the mys­te­ri­ous Pick, the prac­ti­cal Laura, and the sexy Rus­sian Tanya show up on the Square C, these hard­work­ing Mon­tana ranch folk sud­denly seem to have noth­ing bet­ter to do than spend the sum­mer on a di­nosaur dig. Whether it’s sex ap­peal or the bot­tom line that shifts her pri­or­i­ties from ranch­ing to di­nosaurs, Coul­ter isn’t much both­ered by whether the bones might ac­tu­ally be on Bu­reau of Land Man­age­ment land.

In Hickam’s book, di­nosaurs aren’t the only relics of an ear­lier time in Mon­tana. As if the 19th-cen­tury cat­tle wars weren’t over, the Mon­tana ranch­ers claim own­er­ship of the prairie, even when it’s pub­lic land they lease. They dis­miss en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists as “doo­fuses … pretty much dis­as­ters to them­selves and the en­vi­ron­ment” — while in New Mex­ico, ranch­ers and en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists joined forces nearly 14 years ago as the Quivira Coali­tion to pre­serve ran­ge­land. And if the only two gay char­ac­ters in The Di­nosaur Hunter aren’t stereo­typed as ef­fem­i­nate, they are cer­tainly pre­sented as loath­some for other rea­sons, though there’s no way to know if this is an in­ten­tional slur.

And, nat­u­rally, we’d all be safer if ev­ery­one were heav­ily armed and most es­pe­cially if at least one of our neigh­bors har­bored a mis­sile launcher. This last is demon­strated when the may­hem reaches a bru­tal but ul­ti­mately com­i­cal — and per­haps tongue-in-cheek — cli­max wor­thy of any wildly un­likely Hol­ly­wood ac­tion-ad­ven­ture movie (rated at least PG-13). No doubt that’s what Hickam has in mind. Still, it just might in­spire a new crop of paleontologists. The di­nosaurs, af­ter all, are magnificent.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.