When we first met Barry Lopez, he was writing short fiction. He emerged with Desert Notes in 1976, the first in a brilliant trilogy about man's connection with the natural world. In recent years, he's become better known for lyrical essays and insightful travel pieces, published in the pages of Harper's and Outside magazines, among others.
His mindful, well-informed non-fiction won the National Book Award for Arctic Dreams and the John Burrough's Medal for Of Wolves and Men. He's recently published a memoir, About This Life.
But the author clearly had some unfinished business in the realm of short stories, and more specifically, in his checkup of ourselves. In his new collection, he's turned away from the natural landscape to explore the foibles of human nature, which are on greater display here than in past stories. He'll read from that collection Friday at Auntie's.
In Light Action in the Caribbean, two Catholic saints carry on an illicit love affair, ugly Americans show their ignorance in foreign places and people commit terrible acts against one another.
"I wanted to push into some new areas," says the author, speaking from his home in Oregon. "I wanted to take a different fictional look into this place I seem to occupy, a curiosity between human culture and physical place."
Readers who relish the author's tradewind-soothed musings and quiet reflections on rivers, forests and the well-lived life may be caught off-guard.
"Several of the stories are quite violent," says Lopez. "That's something I hadn't written about before in a direct way. Not because I was afraid to, but I didn't think it was my time until now."
In the title story, Light Action in the Caribbean, we meet a couple of vacuous, shallow tourists who are pretty hard to like. You realize that Lopez, who is known for what he terms "hopeful stories," still hasn't avoided some less-than-hopeful encounters in his travels. One can imagine Lopez, say, doing research for his essay on diving in Bonaire, being stuck next to this same couple on the dive boat or in the hotel lobby for an intolerable afternoon.
"These are people without much emotional or intellectual depth," he says. "They're the kind of people that all of us are ashamed of ourselves for wanting to eavesdrop on, because they're so ridiculous."
And of course these people are always out there; it's just that in most of his work, they merit no more than a passing mention. Here, instead, he gives us an unflinching look at the ugliness of an unexamined life, and the karma that awaits. Lopez draws the title from the lightweight nature of the people's lives, from the unyielding tropical sun on the sea and from 'light action' as a euphemism for savage paramilitary force.
"I wanted to make a collection in which the stories as a whole were less leavened by unmitigated evil, the kind that you just can't turn your back on," he says.
"Most of the stories I've written over the years, the emphasis has been on hope, and some kind of resurrection. That's still the kind of story that I write. But here, I'm trying to write about the fullness of human expression, and part of it is violence. That's how we live today. This incident is pretty common, but the only time we ever hear about it is when it involves an American citizen."
In Light Action, Lopez has set his stories all over the world, in Tokyo, North Dakota, Peru or eastern Oregon, as one might expect from an incessant world traveler. Once, in a fascinating piece for Harper's Magazine, Lopez rode in the belly of big jets to follow shipments of air freight around the world. In his travels, he takes great pains to learn about each rock formation he encounters, every new cultural shoulder he brushes up against. He writes with authority on biology, natural history and science.
"In school, I never took classes in biology or geology, hydrology, or any of the other things I guess I get myself into," he says. "What I learned is how to learn.
"In non-fiction, I've always put myself in the position of being a learner, apprenticed to people who know more than I do, whether it's indigenous people or scientists," he says. "Fiction is very different. It doesn't involve any research, and it's not about contacting experts, but working through the emotional truths that emerge over a lifetime."
This collection is replete with essential Lopez themes: Living a worthy life, physical labor and finding a sense of place in the world. At the same time, his characters discover that saints aren't perfect, that their heroes aren't what they expected.
"One of the themes is what I would call imperfect love," he says. "We want our love of place, or of another person, to achieve a kind of perfection. And the lesson for most of us is that that never happens, that we just have to make do with the imperfect expression of our love, which means that we will both misunderstand, and be misunderstood."
& & & lt;i & Barry Lopez reads from Light Action in the Caribbean on Friday, Nov. 3 at 7:30 pm at Auntie's Bookstore, 402 W. Main. Call: 838-0206. & lt;/i & & lt;/center &