Barry Harbaugh On:
Walking Out by David Quammen
I first read David Quammen in the pages of Harper’s magazine when I was fresh out of college and woefully unexposed to writers like him—modern American naturalists like Bill McKibben and Rebecca Solnit who practice a kind of literary pragmatism. They want to educate adults on the environment in order to save the planet; in other words, to save ourselves. Quammen wrote about a horrifying contagion spreading in remote Tasmania with a reporter’s rigor, but an artist’s narrative economy and descriptive precision. It seemed remarkable to me at the time, as someone who did not often read science writing and, I admit, someone who assumed that such writers were less sophisticated than their fiction-composing counterparts. I didn’t know anything, is the point.
A handful of years later, James Scott, a novelist I was working with at Harper (the book publisher) suggested I read his most favorite short story of all time–by David Quammen. Though I had come to follow Quammen’s career—a book about Darwin, another about modern pandemics—I didn’t know he had once written short fiction, let alone a masterpiece of the form, as James explained he had. The story goes that Quammen gave up fiction entirely a few years after publishing “Walking Out,” which belongs next to the best of Raymond Carver and Andre Dubus in the canon of rural American literature. (The story is about a father taking his boy on a hunting trip in the wake of divorce).
But before reading it I had to find it. There are no books in print of Quammen’s stories and there were not any versions “Walking Out” online when I first looked. It seemed to exist only in a mass market anthology that Carver and Tom Jenks had compiled in 1987 called American Short Story Masterpieces. That I could leave my office and walk to the nearest bookstore in Midtown Manhattan and find this still-in-print paperback seemed amazing. That this wonderful story is now available to an international audience through the Short Story Project seems nothing short of miraculous.
James gave it to me, and now I can pass it along to you.