John Blair Gamber’s Positive Pollutions and Cultural Toxins explores environmental justice from an angle few ecocritics and naturalist writers have discussed in a full-length analytical work: how, he asks, can contamination, human and natural waste, decay, and, in general, polluting, toxic processes all be metaphors for urban decay and renewal, racial tensions and transitions, and regeneration of lost cultural foundations such as languages, stories, and spirituality? The book follows a simple structure, beginning with a critical introduction to Gamber’s theoretical base followed by five chapters that apply his theories to six novels: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of Talents (1998), Alejandro Morales’s The Rag Doll Plagues (1991), Louise Erdrich’s The Antelope Wife (1998), Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange (1997), and Gerald Vizenor’s Dead Voices (1992). He follows these chapters with [End Page 470] a brief epilogue explaining further applications of these theories to other writings. Along with Gamber’s fluid and compelling analysis, this structure allows the theories to take hold in a way that can be applied easily to other texts and provides complexity without being obscure or tortuous.
In the book’s introduction, Gamber presents his theoretical base as emerging out of several resources, from Henry David Thoreau’s ideas on the bucolic and the body as compost material to Lawrence Buell’s attention to “toxic discourse” to many other emblematic ecocritical writers’ thoughts on the interaction between humans, their own waste, and their environments. The author writes to “challenge the seeming divide between first and second wave ecocriticism, to show that any constructions that divide the human from the nonhuman cannot stand” (5). This includes putting an emphasis on the Other-ing of nonhuman animals (from other mammals to protozoans), plants, anthropogenic toxins, waste, and urban spaces, which then translates into the Other-ing of homeless, non-white peoples and lower socioeconomic classes.
For instance, in the text’s fourth chapter, which focuses on Yamashita’s novel about the removal of Japanese people during World War II to Manzanar, Gamber points out that, like the Native Americans, Mexicans, and African Americans discussed in other chapters, the Japanese are “seen as disposable members of their urban communities; they are cast off by administrative society; and they both dwell in garbage-laden spaces and make use of the waste more than economically advantaged groups” (121). There is a recognized liquidity of such groups giving them the ability to cross social, economic, and physical boundaries—a cultural survival skill crucial to never becoming simply “machines of commodification” (130). Gamber’s analysis of this and the other five books reimagines criticisms of the novels to conclude that the way in which people treat their environments is also the way they begin to treat their neighbors and fellow beings. The interconnectedness expressed in this understanding of deep ecology exemplifies “a recognition of the ways that humanity resembles the rest of the world, particularly because we are inseparable and indecipherable from it. The same impulses that lead to ecological destruction also lead to cycles of inequality” (154).
In addition to attending to the critical implications of these novels, Gamber never loses sight of the grander picture. He interweaves ecological and literary support for his analysis that ranges from how the cypress, prone to decay and disease, is also deeply symbolic of the Los Angeles landscape to how disposable, non-biodegradable diapers illustrate that the US consumerist culture begins in infancy (70–72, 94–95).
Gamber fills a gap analytically and narratively in American ecocriticism as he examines deeply how toxins influence a broad environmental spectrum from real chemical damage to understanding the distance humans maintain from their own actions and bodies. Though his examples at times sear the imagination, they always end positively, seeking the regeneration, reuse, recycling, and reclamation that follows understanding the toxicity of human nature as well as its ability to adapt and survive. [End Page 471]