This 100-page story is comprised of two narratives – one is of the 4-year hunt for Old Ben, a legendary bear walking around with bullets under its skin, old and wise and smarter than the hunters and all their dogs, until Ike, the protagonist, and the mutt Lion come along. The other one, inserted like a 30-page footnote in the middle of the hunting story, is about Ike’s heritage: his parentage and their various sins and shameful deeds and his overall legacy of the South and its burdensome history; and of the land, the earth which he tries to become worthy of by repudiating his unearned ownership of it – one forced on him and marked with dishonour.
I’m sorry to say I didn’t do the story justice. I was absent-minded, I wasn’t in it, I kept counting the pages until I would be done with it. It was only at the very end that I stopped fidgeting long enough to get into the written word a little bit and noticed how gorgeous the prose was. I imagine all the rest of it – layers, meanings, intertextual and cultural references, symbolism, etc. – flew right over my head.
What I did get by my grudging engagement with the text was that it’s not just about hunting, and not just about the obvious symbolism of the bear hunt as a passage into manhood, but also about the fading laws of the land conquered and ravaged by the white man, the weight of past sins, the struggle to remain honourable when you’re the heir and inheritor of unspeakable vileness, the long path to renouncing what you’ve been taught and raised to be in order to sink back into the condition nature and God intended for you. It’s an emphatically spiritual story.
Perhaps some day, when I’m old and solitary and instead of spending all my time online I’d spend it with nature, I’ll read it again and really read it that time.