David Gessner’s The Tarball Chronicles

Reviewed by Frank Izaguirre

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I have a complicated relationship with David Gessner’s writing the same way he has a complicated relationship with being a nature writer. On the one hand, I appreciate his self-appointed status as a watchdog for stereotypical environmentalists, and on the other I find it a bit weird that probably his best known book was written for an audience of mostly nature writers just to notify them that they’re uncool and need to drink beer in order to stop being uncool. I enjoy a nature writer who’s at least as eager to commune with people as animals. I’m also a little worried about his drinking. Can’t tell if that’s what he wants.

Regardless, the man’s writing at an impressive clip these days, publishing a book each of the last two years. The Tarball Chronicles, his latest, is a travelogue/meditation on the Gulf oil spill and what it means for the region, our country, and even the world. We join Gessner on his haphazard and unplanned journey, meeting endearing locals and emblematic wildlife; and we get a closeup of how a corporation can shush away all problems by whispering dollars.

But the most interesting part of the book doesn’t have to do with the Gulf or oil: it’s Gessner’s internal struggle with his identity. Gessner has a similar thing going on to the Walden subplot of Thoreau the crude vs. Thoreau the prude. He awkwardly describes how he brings beers out into the field with him, chugging them rather randomly throughout different times of the day. He also frequently mentions all the meat he eats, ostensibly so he isn’t confused with one of those touchy-feely vegetarian environmentalists that are kinda lame.     

There’s something in his writing that makes it seem like practically everything he does is just to make sure he seems cool. He’ll only describe his birding outings, his affection for wildlife, as long as he mentions he had a drink within three to fifteen pages. He remembers to drop the F-bomb about every fifty pages.

Gessner is so self-conscious about following his own rules on how not to be a granola that I can’t really tell who he is. He makes grand efforts to befriend everyone he meets, including those with opposite political and religious views. I get the sense he wants to be liked by pretty much everyone ever, which is a problematic quality for anyone and especially a writer. In his zeal to prove he gets along with non-nature lovers, or nature lovers that shoot everything they can eat, I find it hard to pin down his convictions. I’m not sure the things he does are truly him and not just insurance against being boxed into the stereotypes he worries make nature writing uncool.

Maybe the one thing that always remains clear is he genuinely cares about the environment, close to him and elsewhere. For me, that’s cool enough.


Frank Izaguirre is a writer, ecocritic, and birder. He teaches creative nonfiction and journalism at Pittsburgh School for the Creative and Performing Arts (CAPA), and has been published in ISLE and Flashquake, and has something forthcoming in Fourth Genre. Follow him on Twitter @FrankMIzaguirre.

  1. Is this really a review of the book? Seems more like a vent on Gessner and not much about his book.

  2. I prefer the term diatribe actually.

    Kidding. I wrote about what I considered the most intriguing aspect of the book, a reoccurring habit of Gessner’s writing I’ve noticed.

  3. There’s no review in your review. It’s just a personal attack, and a rather unintelligent one at that, particularly considering the breadth of environmental and literary issues Gessner explores in his writing. Very disappointing that Terrain would publish such a slight, transparent, and mean-spirited piece of writing.

  4. There’s something laughably prudish about this — I hesitate to call it a review since, come on, what do we really learn about Gessner’s book here? But if you were going for a disappointed-mom-just-finished-reading vibe, nice work!

  5. Terrain.org is a big fan of David Gessner’s. We’ve excerpted his work, and will continue to value and review it. Here in the small Book Review corner of the journal, we work very hard to only spend time (what little we have) on reviewing books we think are worth discussing. Our reviewer is a fan of David’s too, and his piece does say that, notably the last paragraph. We don’t tell our reviewers what to think or feel or write when they’re responding to a book. Perhaps we could have asked our reviewer to clarify more all the good he sees in David’s work–but he indicates this and I think assumes that our readers have read as much of Gessner as he has–which in itself is a compliment. Since he was responding to what he saw in the text, we feel his insight is valid as a reader. We titled it Commentary–since we realized that’s what it was. Terrain.org as a journal would not be honest if we censored our reviewers or only published reactions and reviews we felt people would like or feel good about or that were only filled with praise and lacking any critical comment or insight. Then our reviews would be meaningless. As long as our reviewers are reacting to things they see in a text, then we have to feel that that’s a valid reaction. We look forward as always to David’s next book.

  6. I certainly wasn’t asking for you to censor his opinion, which he obviously has a right to. As I said in my own reaction, I am and remain a big fan of Terrain. I was just airing a slightly different opinion.

  7. Andrew, you’re totally missing the point. The problem here isn’t that this was a negative review of Gessner’s book, and the answer certainly isn’t to ask the reviewer to “clarify more all the good he see’s in David’s work.” The problem is that this wasn’t a review.

    And as for calling it a “commentary”? Well, this “commentary” was a complete waste of time as it did not comment on the book, but rather on Frank’s personal conclusions about the author. I truly hope that in the future Terrain holds itself higher standards in its “Book Review” section. This is pretty disappointing.

  8. As others have said, what about the book?

    Izaguirre’s previous “review” suggested environmentalists should champion Jonathan Franzen merely because he writes about birds, but again with no attention to the text itself, no inquiry into whether it works as fiction and is worth reading apart from the birds. Even called “commentary” (despite the word “review” in the title), writing about books without engaging the actual books is disingenuously myopic in a way that doesn’t add to either conversation, about literature or environmentalism.

  9. And in the Franzen “review” there’s a lob at Gessner via quoting a tongue-in-cheek line as though it were meant to be read straight. With fans like this…

  10. I think Izaguirre clearly hit a weak spot, something Gessner himself probably feels a bit insecure about, else why go to such great lengths to defend himself. If Izaguirre didn’t address every element of the book, he did get at the heart of something that really defines Gessner’s voice, which one either likes or doesn’t.

Comments are closed.

Terrain.org is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.