Monday, July 28, 2014

Thunder In The Mountains: A Towering Work of Literary Nonfiction From A Gifted New American Author

Craig Collins was a rising journalist in the 1980s when he took a sharp turn along his career path and headed toward the presumably greener pastures of the corporate world. It proved to be a wise move. Collins found great success as an executive at several Fortune 500 companies and then founder of several tech companies.

But he evidently never lost his passion for writing, or his talent. Collins' first book, Thunder in the Mountains: A Portrait of American Gun Culture (Lyons Press), which debuts this fall, is not some predictable vanity project from a former executive with too much time on his hands. It is in fact a towering new work of literary nonfiction.

Powerful and skillfully written, Thunder in the Mountains is as its subtitle suggests a portrait of American gun culture. But at its core it is a poignant and heartbreaking coming-of-age story. Collins recounts his personal and family history as well the history of the American West, sharing stories that have at least one thing in common: guns and the unthinkable destruction they can bring.

Growing up in the rough-hewn Great Basin -- Pocatello, Idaho; Carson City and Winnemucca, Nevada; and Bishop, California -- Collins was surrounded by and enamored of guns from a young age. And that's how we first meet the author, who pulls us in immediately with a starkly poetic account of a hunting trip he took with his father and brothers in a remote area of Northeastern Nevada when Collins was 13. 

During the hunt, Collins, who was already an adept rifleman, accidentally shoots himself in the foot with a high-powered deer rifle. The unthinkable pain and near-death experience that followed -- yes, you can die from a shot in the foot -- undoubtedly triggered his first realization that amid the glory and mythology of guns there is a darker, truer story.

That darker, truer story is told in this book, which like Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five seamlessly and effectively jumps back and forth in time. It's an exhilarating read. Filled with both manly bravado and sensitive introspection, Thunder in the Mountains' dichotomous nature is a reflection of its author, an educated CEO and exceptional writer who lives happily in the suburbs of San Diego, but who, too, is a country boy with a deep affinity for and understanding of the great outdoors. And he still hunts.

There is a duality to all of us, of course. I've never met anyone who isn't in some way conflicted. But Collins wears his contradictions well. His reverence and rebelliousness somehow coexist comfortably. 

The masculine resonance of this book pays fitting homage to Ernest Hemingway, whose spirit must loom large in Collins' world. Hemingway killed himself with his favorite shotgun in his Ketchum, Idaho home, a few months after Collins was born in nearby Pocatello. 

Notwithstanding the unsubtle Hemingway influences, Collins has carved out his own commanding, cogent and caring voice. The book is smart, yes, but what struck me most is its profound decency. There is a prevailing kindness in Collins' words that reminded me a bit of Bite the Bullet, the underrated 1975 Western epic written and directed by Richard Brooks. In that literate and sadly overlooked film, which is ostensibly about a grueling 700-mile horse race, the humanity of Brooks' script shines through. Like Collins book, the film also takes a rare and brave stand against another staple of the Old West: cruelty to horses.

With this remarkably assured debut, Collins has managed to capture the stirring spirit of an antiheroic 1970's Western and at the same time completely strip away the romance and bravado of guns. No small task. His description of what it ACTUALLY feels like to be shot is superbly detailed, and his description of how fast a bullet actually travels is shocking. At least it was to me.

Apparently getting shot for real isn't like it is in the movies, where guys take a bullet in the gut and keep charging, keep fighting. It usually doesn't work that way for real, Collins explains.

While Thunder in the Mountains takes a sober look at the evil guns can do, it is anything but a professorial diatribe. Pardon the cliche', but I found it almost impossible to put this book down once I got started. Collins writes with utter confidence because he clearly knows he is a master of language, but more importantly, he also knows he can probably shoot better than you. He knows how it feels to pull the trigger and hit his target. He can also probably talk more eloquently and accurately about the mechanics of a shotgun or the physics of a bullet being fired than you.

But Collins also knows all too well the consequences of our country's time-tested obsession with these ridiculous weapons, which make it so bloody easy to kill. Just a quick pull of our index finger can cause unthinkable damage. The very nature of The Gun seems almost cowardly, when you think about it. Put the gun down and fight like a man, right?

I grew up in the Midwest and was pheasant hunting with friends by the time I was in middle school. We used a 12 gauge shotgun. But I tired of hunting by the time I was in high school. I never killed anything bigger than a pheasant, and never intend to. I quickly lost whatever passion I had for firing a shot at another living thing. No matter how you camouflage it, shooting a gun never felt like sport to me. 

In subtle and eloquent ways Thunder in the Mountains will make you question whatever you previously thought about guns, whether you love them, hate them or are indifferent. Soaring above the sea level of a typical memoir, this is a unique and important piece of art that has a firm grasp of American culture. 

And it marks the welcome arrival of an important new American author to the nation's literary landscape. I hope and suspect we'll be hearing more in the coming years from Craig Collins.


  1. Thank you for your excellent review of Collins book. I just finished Thunder in the Mountains and had the same "couldn't put it down experience". As a high school classmate of Collins and Eastern Sierra resident, the pages especially came to life for me through his vivid descriptions and solid prose. Collin's stories of personal and re-imagined historical events are sometimes sad, sometimes humorous, sometimes shocking, but always thought provoking. Considerate readers should come away from reading this book with new perspectives about America's gun culture of both the old and the new West. Well done, Craig Collins!

    1. thanks very much for reading our blog, and for sharing this. but hey, anonymous, why be anonymous? share your appreciation for collins' book with the world! :)

    2. I tried, but my google account wouldn't let me for some reason. Anonymous was the only way I could post. I'm open for suggestions to fix this in order to post publicly. Thanks.

    3. hmm. sorry, wish i could help you. i have no idea why it would only let you post anonymously.

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