I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while. My favorite story by an author who seems incapable of writing anything average, let alone bad. Here’s how it opens:
You could shoot anything you wanted, for a price, even the elephant, but Bernard tended to discourage the practice. It made an awful mess, for one thing, and when all was said and done it was the big animals – the elephant, the rhino, the water buffalo and the giraffe – that gave the place its credibility, not to mention ambiance. They weren’t exactly easy to come by, either. He still regretted the time he’d let the kid from the heavy-metal band pot one of the giraffes – even though he’d taken a cool twelve thousand dollars to the bank on that one. And then there was the idiot from MGM who opened up on a herd of zebra and managed to decapitate two ostriches and lame the Abyssinian ass in the process. Well, it came with the territory, he supposed, and it wasn’t as if he didn’t carry enough insurance on the big stuff to buy out half the L.A. Zoo if he had to. He was just lucky nobody had shot himself in the foot yet. Or the head. Of course, he was insured for that, too.
What I love about this piece is how unhappy every single element is, and they’re all intensely aware of it too. The story is supersaturated with sadness. If you touched it, there’s a good chance sorrowful crystals would spontaneously race over your finger.
Bernard runs Puff’s African Game Ranch, twenty-five hundred acres of land near Bakersfield, California. He has wild animals, which the rich can hunt for hefty fees, pretending they’re in Africa. But the illusion’s not very good, though Bernard tries his best. Groves of trees almost disguise the oil derricks. An Olympic swimming pool has been painted to look like a watering hole. As for the animals, they come from zoos and circuses, and they’re all old. Even the most impressive maned lion has rotted teeth that he can barely eat with, and the elephant is a thirty-eight year veteran of the circus.
Bernard knows how feeble the illusion all is. For all the effort he’d put into it, the place looked like a circus camp, the bombed-out remains of a zoo, a dusty flat baking former almond ranch in the sun-blasted southeast corner of the San Joaquin valley – which is exactly what it was. Business is terrible, and even when he does get business, it means he loses more animals that he can barely afford to replace, and the illusion weakens still further.
The other characters are equally pathetic. Mike Bender is a real estate agent, harboring dreams of big game hunting since his childhood. But he can’t afford to take the time off to go to Africa, and he promised his trophy wife and disinterested daughter that they would go soon, so he’s determined to get his dream experience here. And even after he deals with his wife complaining about the lack of amenities, and his daughter protesting the very concept of hunting, Mike shamefully discovers that he can’t hunt. The first time he tries to bag a lion he freezes, and Bernard has to shoot the animal in the head – ruining any chance of a trophy – to save his life.
This might be an incredibly depressing story if it was set in the middle of a city, when the characters are doing things you might do on a daily basis. But I think part of the reason this story is so enjoyable, as opposed to down-heartening, is its detachment from reality. It’s set in a failed illusion in a remote part of the world featuring people doing things you don’t do on a regular basis. And because of that, I think you can stay a certain distance from it, admiring the artistry of the sorrow on display here without succumbing to it yourself.
Or maybe I’m over-thinking it. Maybe it’s just a fantastic yarn.
Big Game by T.C. Boyle
Word count: 8,100
First published: Rolling Stone, Oct 3, 1991
Where to find it: Without a Hero, collection, 1995, Penguin Books
T.C. Boyle Stories, collection, 1998, Viking