21st-Century Yokel, by Tom Cox. Pub 2017
I’ve had this book on my shelf for ages, purchased shortly after I read Cox’s short stories a few years ago. I enjoyed some of those and the writing style – especially the evocative text describing landscape and outdoor spaces in several of the stories, so thought I’d try this collection of nature writing essays, as they seemed to be more what Cox specialized in.
I really really really want to enjoy nature writing. I’ve tried over the years, partly because I enjoy nature and want to enjoy reading about it, and maybe even write about it myself some day. There have been a few nature writing books that I have enjoyed and even revisit every now and then (Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, Gwen Moffat’s Space Below My Feet, RM Patterson’s The Dangerous River and Buffalo Head), but my more recent attempts have proven one thing: I don’t enjoy reading nature writing, especially the convoluted, rambley examples I’ve tried over the past few years (Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks). To that ignominious list, I now add 21st-Century Yokel.
This type of writing usually takes me a long time to get through, a real problem for an already-slow reader like me. I get easily distracted from these books, don’t look forward to finishing them (but feel like I should), and rarely take anything of note away from them. Sadly, Tom Cox’s book is not different. It took me nearly 2 months to get through and required a period of near-unemployment to provide the time and space to push to the end. I wanted to like it. I wanted to learn about places and animals and ancient ways, and live vicariously in those nature spaces in Devonshire. But while there were a few memorable bits (see below), I found each of the chapters overlong and not very engaging. The writing that I enjoyed in the short stories was given full stream-of-consciousness flood, and the diversions and digressions often had me wondering where the story was going (often nowhere) or needing to flip back a few pages to remember what the chapter was about.
There were three bits that I flagged as clever/enjoyable:
- The essay/chapter called “Full Jackdaw” – a meandering contemplation of (in no particular order) the houses the author lived in, the yards/gardens of same, trees and wood, owls, birds, and communication – invokes the phrase “full jackdaw” as an alternative to “perfectly fine” or “top shelf” or “well done”. The phrase is amusing, but then is beat to near death over the course of a few pages and afterwards never appears again, even near then end when, having his phone service repaired, he could easily (and completely appropriately) referred to his restored status as “back to full jackdaw”.
- The best chapter is called “The Best Waves”, a partial reminiscence of a recently-deceased grandparent that digresses into various other narrative cul-de-sacs. Therein is one of the truest assessments of the sea-as-comforts:
- “‘My mind is heavy and troubled today,’ you’ll say to the sea. ‘Properly stare at me for a moment and get a grip on yourself,’ the sea will reply. ‘Do I honestly look like I care? I’m the fucking sea.’ It is inconceivably vaster than any of us, will still be here when we’re gone…and doesn’t care about our problems. Strangely this is often the biggest reassurance of all, especially in those moments of worry that derive directly from the delusion that as humans we are in some way important, which is ultimately all moments of worry, when you think about it.” In addition to being unnecessarily long, that last sentence has grammatical challenges that gave me the shivers.
- Whenever his father appears in a story, Cox uses ALL-CAPS for his dialogue, which makes his already somewhat humourous speeches and conversations a bit funnier.
Ultimately, the book is not terrible, it is just not for me. I was so very glad to reach the end of this book, and will be even gladder to pass it along through a little library or charity shop to a reader who will hopefully enjoy it much more than I did and give it the full jackdaw.
Fate: charity shop or little book library.