Over the past several months, I’ve occasionally shouted out great examples of single descriptive details that elevated non-fiction tales into the realm of high art. There was Barbara Demick’s retelling of a North Korean’s manicure-related revelation; Bill Buford on a skinhead disco; and, pehaps most memorably, Mark Bowden’s riff on Pablo Escobar’s depraved leisure preferences. Another recently popped to mind, an analogy from C.J. Chivers that long-ago struck me as a classic. It comes from his 2002 New York Times Magazine piece about walrus hunting:
The revived walrus shoot ranks among the most bizarre hunts ever. Walrus remain protected in the United States, and it is illegal for American hunters to bring home any part of their kills. Instead, they store the skulls, ivory and enormous penis bones in Canada and talk of lobbying Congress to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act to allow shipment of their curios south. The restrictions hardly deter. Each hunter pays $6,000 to $6,500 to kill a bull, which generally takes a day. It is an achievement that is not surprising, considering that walrus hunting, under Inuit supervision, is the approximate equivalent of a long boat ride to shoot a very large beanbag chair.
That single clause opens up so much psychological depth in the piece. There are a lot of ways that Chivers’ could have denigrated the supposed challenges inherent in hunting stationary animals. But comparing the targets to a cushy staple of Carter-era dorm rooms nails it in a very ingenious way. I can actually see those bean-bag chairs out on the ice floes, waiting to be perforated by rifle bullets. And then hear the unearned whoops of the hunters as they celebrate their faux triumph.
(Postcard via this stellar collection of walrus-related imagery)