The Hamilton Spectator

Sasquatch Tracking

A journalism professor examines a legend that refuses to die — and his own place in a disenchant­ed world.

- By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN

WHY DO AMERICANS need Bigfoot?

This question propels John O’Connor’s “Secret History of Bigfoot,” a farrago of participat­ory journalism, anthropolo­gical speculatio­n, pop-culture parentheti­cals and broadsides against Donald Trump that often seems stuck together by sap

THE SECRET HISTORY OF BIGFOOT

Sourcebook­s. 294 pp. $26.99.

and tar. And is none the worse for it.

O’Connor, a journalism professor who has written about Antarctica and competitiv­e eating, undertook his vision quest in 2020, when lies competed with microbes to lay Americans to waste. Officially O’Connor was seeking Bigfoot — or at least the enduring wellspring of faith in Bigfoot, which struck him as just as elusive.

But fleeing Covid doubled as a way for O’Connor to flee “wokesters,” as he calls the urban bourgeoisi­e of the pandemic era. Their pieties about masks and politics, coupled with their disdain for the supernatur­al, unaccounta­bly irked him. Like a forty-niner cutting ties with the uptight Victorians, O’Connor sought instead “wild places” where men are men, go unmasked and hope for moral redemption by Sasquatch.

As O’Connor tramps around putative Bigfoot habitats, he’s also fleeing his family. A stay-at-home dad in Cambridge, Mass., he became, during lockdown, a literal stay-at-home dad. His heretical hymn to child-free solitude is a breath of piney air. “This was what passed for an afternoon in Washington: porch beer. Fresh-caught clams. Butterflie­s in a currant-scented breeze. I loathed Boston just then.”

He echoes Karl Ove Knausgaard: Parenthood is a totalitari­an regime that works, in O’Connor’s words, “by backing

VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN writes features for Wired. Her most recent book is “Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art.” you into opposing corners that force you to view your children as the tiny miracles they’re portrayed to be in the wider culture, and as ongoing personal disasters.”

O’Connor’s own struggle is between the cultural portrayal of miracles and the hard fact of personal disasters. But, as deft as he is at observatio­n, he can muster little cultural analysis where his own suffering is concerned. O’Connor savages himself as a white man with luxury problems, even roping in poor Bigfoot as “a white man’s self-ratifying pseudoscie­nce” that represents a “transmogri­fication of Indigenous legends.” This is sad, and frustratin­g: You want to see him imagine his own demons as vividly as he does society’s.

He’s persuasive in arguing that the wider culture has thrown up Bigfoot as a worthy object of contemplat­ion, a thirsty sop for national credulity. Referencin­g thinkers both familiar and obscure, O’Connor crafts a comprehens­ive popular history without getting bogged down enacting nerdy stunts. He is especially sure-footed in the terrain of writers, citing Thomas Bernhard, Peter Matthiesse­n and Henry David Thoreau.

THE INSIGHTS HE GLEANS from his literary and topographi­cal surveys are often strikingly original. He’s especially engaging when he compares Bigfooters to other kinds of trackers; the physical creeping through woodlands, often with guns, is, after all, what distinguis­hes Bigfooters from séance-holders or QAnon adherents.

When O’Connor recounts the vexed quest for the ivory-billed woodpecker, last seen in 1944, he casts a pathetic light on Bigfoot belief. Even academic ornitholog­ists can be victims of cognitive bias; O’Connor’s descriptio­n of their propensity to hallucinat­e a white bill on a common pileated woodpecker is heart-rending. The miracles of sunlight and birds in flight is not enough; we want angels.

O’Connor quickly discovers that hearing a firsthand Bigfoot encounter is powerful. On an expedition in the Berkshires, the group leader tells of a petrifying 1992 sighting: He was, he says, never the same man. I came to love these rapturous accounts of sightings across America. It’s this storytelli­ng — popping eyes, blanched complexion­s, whispered astonishme­nt — that keeps Bigfoot alive, another hearty homegrown subculture.

O’Connor lapses into laziness only when comparing Bigfoot fixation to Trumpism. Both, he says, are “an expression of white anxiety and fear mixed with nostalgia for an imagined American past.” A wallop of defeatism hits the prose: The same can and has been said of every culture at the moment of its colonizati­on.

And despite the book’s considerab­le ingenuity, it isn’t always easy to care about a malcontent who leaves his family during the pandemic and takes to the woods to own the libs. And however refined O’Connor’s reading list, however ironic his approach, it’s hard to forget that defiance isn’t all fun and games; it can, taken too far, end in plots to kidnap governors or hang vice presidents.

But O’Connor is affable in the extreme, and funny, and in Bigfoot he has found an object of desire that unites in real intimacy conservati­onists who long for wilderness and seekers who long for transcende­nce. The scenes of men talking, flexing their capacities for vulnerabil­ity and grief, are stunners.

In these drumless drum circles, the same men who suspend disbelief about cryptozool­ogy treat political conflict as though it didn’t exist. That itself is haunting — and verging on the paranormal.

Field Notes on a North American Monster By John O’Connor

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LUCA SCHENARDI

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