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Originally published Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 5:40 AM

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‘Snapper’: looking for birds, love and the meaning of life

Brian Kimberling’s debut novel, “Snapper,” is a loosely connected group of stories about Nathan Lochmueller, a philosophy major turned bird researcher in search of meaning. Kimberling reads Monday, April 29, at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Brian Kimberling

The author of “Snapper” will appear at 7 p.m. Monday at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

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‘Snapper’

by Brian Kimberling

Pantheon, 213 pp., $28.95

Brian Kimberling’s quirky first novel centers on Nathan Lochmueller, an alter ego for the writer, who grew up in southern Indiana and earned pittance wages for a few years as a research assistant in songbird studies. Like songbirds, whose numbers are mysteriously plummeting, Nathan doesn’t seem able to make his way in the world. He’s madly in love with a free spirit named Lola but can’t get past casual sex with her. He hates Indiana but can’t settle on a suitable alternative. If it weren’t so funny, the book would be a total downer.

But funny it is, and poignant as well as thought-provoking — a delightful departure from the ordinary. Apparently, it’s actually short stories packaged as a novel. There’s no central conflict other than a man trying to make his way without knowing what he wants; the book’s time line skips from here to there, organized on high (or maybe low) points of Nathan’s life instead of a traditional beginning, middle and end.

The writing prompts readers to engage more with characters and ideas than plot, appropriate because although Nathan was a college philosophy major, studies don’t appear to have provided him with any answers.

Nathan is unhappy at the beginning of the book and still unhappy at the end, but he has many weird encounters along the bumpy roads he travels. For a while, he has enough money to keep a spray-painted old truck with “Gypsy Moth” spelled out in gold glitter (Lola’s idea) on the road. It gets him to the woods where he maps tree- and ground-nest locations, birding both by ear and eye, meticulously recording avian behaviors. Whether these data become any more meaningful than studying philosophy ... well, don’t hold your breath.

Even his beloved woods are sometimes a scary place. To blend in, he can’t wear bright colors, making him “an accident waiting to happen” to hunters. One day Nathan meets a mushroom-hunting Vietnam vet in camouflage, who’s shooting the avian study subjects. Nathan, who’s named the birds as though they’re personal friends, doesn’t dare point out that killing them “is deeply illegal, even in Indiana.”

In other chapters, he tells of the snapping turtle that bit off a friend’s thumb; of his Aunt Loretta and Uncle Dart, Texans whose world view and grudges are still stuck in Civil War times; of trying to get high smoking banana peels; of a diner in the town of Santa Claus where regulars answer kids’ holiday wish lists; of being pushed down a flight of stairs and suffering a severe concussion that leads to hearing loss, which puts him out of a job watching birds but eventually precipitates a move to a raptor recovery center in Vermont where he meets Annie, a lover who can’t replace Lola.

Summarizing it like this, the book doesn’t appear to make much sense. And indeed, you sometimes have to hang in to see what happens. I’d gladly have read more about birds and Nathan’s work, the one area where he evinced confidence. But it’s quite a feat, to keep readers reading on the strength of laughter. Kimberling, who moved from Indiana to living in the Czech Republic, Turkey, Mexico and now England, where he received a master’s degree in creative writing at Bath Spa University, turns the trick effortlessly.

Former Seattleite Irene Wanner lives, writes and watches birds in New Mexico.

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