By: William Borden
Reviewed by: David Wyman
Livingston Press, 2008
William Borden’s novel, Dancing With Bears, is a very odd book about the extremely odd business of living. The publisher’s Web site informs us that Livingston Press is hot on the trail of the quirky and odd, always on the hunt for "offbeat literature." Well, Livingston bagged a stuffed and mounted trophy loony-toon with this one, and you just might like it.
The vocabulary and metaphors in this book are as "offbeat" as they come. The quirky characters and situations are beyond the pale. The sex transcends the naughty-kinky and the merely offensive, to the highest levels of what can only be described as, well, odd.
Beginning at the Minnesota lodge of an eccentric National Park Service ranger/bear-researcher, the book’s plot—an offbeat oddity, if ever there was one— is roughly woven and quilt-stitched together with scientific bear factoids, bear fairytales, and bear mythologies from native cultures around the world. I liked that part.
Change—hilariously unavoidable and wrenchingly, hilariously unnerving—is the very essence of life in this dancing bear universe. Sometimes these changes are metaphorical. Often they are disturbingly literal.
Love changes into hate and vice-versa, death changes into life and vice-versa; men change into bears, bears turn into human women who give birth to bear-cub children. Human characters turn into each other, unconsciously swapping roles and attributes until they morph into replacements of themselves—alienated body-snatchers, minus the pods growing in the basement. You might like that part.
Obviously, Dancing With Bears is not for everybody. But you can bet your buckshot there’s something in it for everybody:
Do you like a book with some pictures in it? This one features a cute little cartoon-logo dancing bear, whose page-position changes in relation to the gray title & epigram-box at the head of each chapter. I liked that part.
The epigrams alone could be released as a vest-pocket gift book or calendar at Christmas time. Built out of quotable quotes translated from Tlingit and Lakota, Japanese and Hindic, Einstein and Elvis—with a different little dancing-bear for every month—it would be a world tour of concise wisdom and amusement. I think that’d be pretty cool. You might too.
But wait! There’s more:
Dancing With Bears is a philosophy primer. It’s a modern Native America guide. It’s a cookbook! I kid you not; woven into the conversations, descriptive passages, and narrative meanderings, this novel delivers an informed snapshot of the Grand Tradition in western philosophy, from Socrates to Spinoza, from Epictetus to Wittgenstein. The life of contemporary Amerinds—particularly of Ojibways, and especially of those few who have managed to form a worthwhile existence on the reservations of the Northwest—is apparently both mainstream enough and traditional enough to include pilots of airplanes and helicopters who literally fly with their eyes closed (using spirit-world intuition and hard-won aeronautics savvy); Indians who can find things that are lost (by methods that only seem completely magical), from keys to pickup trucks to snowbound lesbians. And then, there’s the food.
Frank Running Bear’s Curried Wild Rice Fry Bread is only one of the probably one-hundred gourmet recipes you’ll find in the chapter-heads, conversations, and scene descriptions in Borden’s oddball opus. Lyle’s Porridge (perfect for when the Three Bears drop by for breakfast), Diane’s Pachelbel Brownies (secret ingredient: marijuana. Who-da thunk?), the un-named Writer’s thoughts on Napa Syrah and Carneros Valley Cabernet——all these and many more——constitute one of the few criticisms I can level at this book: I couldn’t concentrate on the story. I kept abandoning my reading to go raid the refrigerator. I really liked that part.
And finally, we mustn’t forget The Bears: Dancing bears, with human partners or solo; bears riding familiarly in the passenger seats of Volvos, their feet propped up on the dash; bears breaking into home and restaurant freezers, looking specifically for Ben and Jerry’s Cherry Garcia; bears in the public library (under the influence of experimental psychotropic drugs administered by the town’s large-animal veterinarian), perusing the periodical shelves for Cooking Light, Bon Appétit, and the New Age Journal.
There is no way on earth to analyze or even describe this folie a deux by any standard criteria. There is no way in heaven-or-hell-Horatio to criticize it with any sane criteria. One can only try.
Within the first twenty-five pages of encountering this book I nearly crammed it down the garbage disposal (a convenient consignment, while rifling the fridge for yummy gourmet bear goodies), and ever thereafter have come within a bear’s breadth of shoving it into the paper shredder, throwing it on the fire. And here’s why:
I would say that Dancing With Bears reads like warmed-over Tom Robbins, but that author has been in charge of warming over his own stuff for at least two decades. Is it fair—or even relevant—to accuse a novelist of being "derivative," just because we are now blessed by at least two American writers with off-kilter worldviews—each uniquely his original own—and the language skills needed to carry us along, delighted and entranced, for several hundred pages?
If you’ve never read a Tom Robbins novel, then enjoy this novel by William Borden with a clear conscience. If you have ever read Tom Robbins and enjoyed the experience, you’ll probably really like this bear of a gem by Bill Borden. I liked it.
Especially the part with bears. Nov 2008
David Wyman is a writer, actor, and historian in Shelby County.