Should the Tent Be Burning Like That? A Professional Amateur’s Guide to the Outdoors
- By Bill Heavey
- Atlantic Monthly Press
- 240 pp.
- Reviewed by Josh Trapani
- December 8, 2017
You'll enjoy this winning collection whether the wild calls to you or not.
Do you subscribe to Field & Stream magazine? Neither do I. (If we did, we’d be familiar with Bill Heavey as the writer of its back-page column, “A Sportsman’s Life,” from which most of this book is drawn.)
Do you love hunting, fishing, and ogling gear at sporting goods stores? I don’t, either. (Though the Cabela’s outside of Austin, TX, has a collection of mounted animal dioramas to rival the American Museum of Natural History’s.)
Answering no to these questions means I was clueless about what I was in for when I picked up Should the Tent Be Burning Like That? The title, while cute, isn’t terribly precise. The book’s not a guide in any sense. And while self-deprecating, the author is no bumbling fool.
Here’s a third question: Do you like great writing and storytelling? If your answer to this one is yes, Should the Tent Be Burning Like That? fits the bill even if you couldn’t care less about the outdoors. (If your answer is no: a] why are you reading a book-review website? and b] I have a different book recommendation for you.)
Heavey’s shtick is a big part of what makes this book fun for people who couldn’t distinguish an elk from a whitetail in a police line-up. Labeling himself a “professional amateur” opens up great vistas of comedic material. It also sends the message that the author is nothing like those fly fishermen whose talk of waders and nymphs is as incomprehensible as a graduate seminar in combinatorics.
Heavey travels throughout the U.S. and Canada, seeking out all manner of critters. Whether turkey in Arkansas or caribou in Quebec, steelhead in California or trout in the Potomac, Heavey’s tried to bag it. Along the way, he meets a remarkable set of guides, experts, and fellow outdoorspeople (most are men, but as the author points out, women are a fast-growing demographic among hunters).
Sometimes these excursions are successful, sometimes not. The fun is in trying, the journey is the destination, and — why not go full-on cringe-worthy cliché? — the thrill is in the hunt. Though I was happy to read about Heavey’s exploits while snugly ensconced in my warm bed rather than shivering in some icy tree stand at six in the morning.
One of my favorite pieces is this collection is also the least exotic: “The Sky’s the Limit,” in which Heavey stalks deer near the Beltway in Virginia. “Stalks” rather than “hunts” because he says it’s illegal to hunt in such heavily populated areas.
This is a rare instance where my own experience exceeds his. I once bagged a deer within sight of the same highway Heavey memorably terms “an eight-lane racetrack open 24 hours a day.”
My weapon? A 2008 Mazda3.
Some may recoil (pun intended) at the thought of people killing animals at a time when most of us have the luxury of avoiding it. Heavey ponders what draws him and others to the woods in a manner that exemplifies how he tempers humor with depth. His narrative persona is a study in not-quite-contrasts: masculine yet vulnerable, spontaneous yet introspective, experienced yet inviting.
The end result is undeniably genuine.
Heavey loves to hunt and fish and buy expensive gear, sure, but he also struggles through a divorce, attempts to relate to his teenage daughter, deals with the deaths of good friends, and faces the inevitability of growing older.
I’m no more likely to grab a rifle and head for the wilderness than I was before reading this book. But if I were so inclined, I doubt there’d be a better guide than Bill Heavey. Whether around a campfire, over a beer, or in another of his works, I’d love to hear more. The best part of reading Should the Tent Be Burning Like That? is getting to know the author.
Josh Trapani contributes regularly to the Washington Independent Review of Books.