Thursday, March 23rd, 2023

Bob Smith in Alaska and other wild places

Tales from my Natural, Wild Life

by Bob Smith

Published by University of Wisconsin Press

Published September 27, 2016
History (memoir)
208 pgs. • Find on Amazon.comWorldCat

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray

March 2, 2018.

Having finally gotten around to reading Bob Smith’s 2007 novel Selfish and Perverse, I found the essays in Treehab (2016) about his experiences in Alaska (many directly incorporated in the novel) very interesting (“Coffee Point,” “Homer and Yukon Island,” “Juneau,” “My Call of the Wild,” “Finding an Arrowhead”). Nonetheless, I found his memoir of his career as a pathbreaking gay standup comedian (Silence = Death: The Education of a Comedian) along with his memoir of being a child rock (and fossil) hound (My Stone Age). Unfortunately, I found the last two essays in the book —“WWJD: What Would Jackie Do” and “At Walden Pond with Henry”—the weakest.

I have enough chronic diseases of my own not to want to read about those of others, though I’ll readily concede that ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis—“Lou Gehrig disease”), which first made it impossible for Smith to stand, then to speak, then to swallow is more horrible, which does not make me any more eager to read illness narratives. (OK, Smith mostly alluded to ALS in passing; WWJD is the only essay that is primarily an illness narrative.) I would not have wanted to publish this thought while he was alive and did not read the book until he was dead. (There are two quite funny quips invoking Lou Gehrig, btw, both including elements of self-denigration by Smith and nothing notably maudlin.)

There are lots of funny lines in Treehab along with a strong environmental consciousness and passion about travel, about hiking in forests and watching birds. Still, I would recommend reading it after reading Selfish and Perverse.

(BTW, the title is the name of a cabin in northern Ontario—north of Toronto anyway. The title essay, however, is primarily about being a sperm donor to a pair of lesbians and being an avuncular father.) I prefer Smith’s first two collections of essays, darkened by homophobia but not by the debilities of inexorable ALS.

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.