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