THE FROZEN LEOPARD
Hunting My Dark Heart in Africa
By Aaron Latham
Prentice Hall Press, $20
Reviewed by Ron Chepesiuk
This book begins with Aaron Latham, best known as the author of the story upon which the movie Urban Cowboy was based, as one depressed, middle-aged man. In Latham's well-crafted words, he is suffering from "the rainy season of his soul." The author's writing career is sputtering, his screenplays sinking like rocks in a pond, and he is still haunted by the violent death of his sister many years before at the tender age of 21.
To confront is mid-life crisis, Latham takes his family and embarks on a deluxe safari to Kenya and Rwanda. With a private guide, they make a whirlwind tour of parks, resources and sanctuaries, observing a variety of wildlife in their natural habitat.
Latham is driven to Africa by his life-long fascination with the African writings of Hemingway, Isak Dinesen, Joseph Conrad, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Why has Africa such a profound effect on people? Answering that question, the author hopes, will rid him of his angst and provide a new lease on life.
So Frozen Leopard is about two trips: a journey to self-discovery and an adventure vacation to East Africa, one of the world's great tourist destinations. The result is a book that on one hand is informative and entertaining and, on the other, flawed and disappointing.
Latham is a talented writer who has both the reporter's keen eye and the novelist's talent for characterization and description. He skillfully blends biographical sketches, fascinating anecdotes, cultural observations, historical fact and analysis to provide a revealing inside look at East Africa today.
Among other things, we learn about the poaching problem facing the rhino, and the history of Ann Merz, a woman who adopted a baby rhino and then nurtured her to adulthood in her bedroom. Latham takes us to Rwanda to experience the famed mountain gorillas and provides some intimate details on the weird death and even weirder life of their benefactor, Dian Fossey.
If Latham would have stuck to the facts, so to speak, Frozen Leopard would have been a nice addition to African travel literature. Unfortunately, as an amateur writer might do, he makes himself a major part of the book.
His frequent tendency to employ fantasy and analogy to illustrate or make a point about himself interrupts a good read. Latham is constantly comparing himself to the lion or some other animal he sees and then tries to make some existential truth about himself out of it. Often it seems contrived.
Consider this passage, written when the author encounters the mountain gorilla: "Perhaps I was overreaching myself by imagining myself the leader of a gorilla family. But his silver back reminded me of my silver chin (My hair was still a reddish brown, but my beard was completely white.) Maybe the silver was the bond. Maybe I just wanted to feel like a king. And so I crowned myself king of the gorillas."
Latham's condition is not as interesting as the African setting he visits and describes. Predictably, in the end, he regains his zest for life. Along the way, however, he will probably lose the enthusiasm of many readers.
Ron Chepesiuk, an associate professor at Winthrop College in Rock Hill, S.C., recently returned from a safari in East Africa.