ANDES RISING by James Munves


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An often forbiddingly technical and discursive first novel by a veteran nonfiction writer (The Treasure of Diogenes Sampuez, 1979, etc.). Munves’s subject is Thomas Cooper, an American scientist who worked on the Manhattan Project and was present at the A-bomb test in Los Alamos; after that, he left his government job, joined a Peace Corps effort to preserve endangered species of birds in the Colombian forests, and presumably perished in an avalanche. The story of Cooper’s ordeal is framed by prefatory and concluding remarks from Rabbi Sherman Teitelbaum, who has been enlisted by Cooper’s mother to investigate whether Thomas is indeed dead and who, with handwritten comments lamenting the adventurer’s increasing distance from his family’s Jewish beliefs, annotates the notebooks Cooper left behind. What’s revealed by these notebooks is Thomas Cooper’s willed separation from his wife and children, the moneymaking urgency of his go-getter brother-in-law, and, especially, the machinations of a government that simultaneously seeks disarmament and ultimate destructive capability (—I came to Colombia to do work that did not put one in the position of using one’s brains for what others might misuse—). The notebooks are further dominated by Cooper’s observations on climate, weather, and bird life, with emphasis on the phenomenon of ’speciation— studied by his great predecessor, ornithologist Frank Chapman, who, decades earlier, had roamed South America collecting museum specimens—and whose unsentimental understanding of nature’s —morality— painfully influenced Cooper’s love-hate relationships with the sciences he has mastered. A compelling theme—that professional and political necessity precludes simple appreciation for the visible world’s plenitude and integrity—is expressed here with considerable passion. But the story suffers from information overload, and even readers perfectly attuned to its ethos may find it heavy going.

Pub Date: May 26th, 1999
ISBN: 0-8112-1407-9
Page count: 192pp
Publisher: New Directions
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1999