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Mr. Darwin's Shooter by Roger McDonald Grove/Atlantic, 1999, 376 pp., $25 A recent Charles Darwin biographer called Syms Covington "the unacknowledged shadow behind [Darwin's] every triumph." In Mr. Darwin's Shooter, his seventh novel, Australian author Roger McDonald brings the shadow to life, creating from little-known history a richly human character. Born in 1816, the son of a butcher in the English village of Bedford, Covington longs for a grander destiny than that of his father His early life features a series of obsessive relationships with men whom he believes can set him on the path to greatness. As a child he idolizes the Christian in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress; later he fixates on a flesh-and-blood version of the character, a young missionary named John Phipps. At the age of twelve Covington follows Phipps to sea, intent on seeking his fortune as a sailor. Eventually he secures a berth on HMS Beagle, where he lobbies hard for the favor of the ship's gentleman . McDonald's depiction of this "courtship" brings shipboard pontics and class consciousness into close view and provides some of the book's most interesting period details. Soon Covington is taken on as Darwin's domestic servant and assistant in the field, shooting, collecting and organizing the specimens needed for research. At the age of twenty-two, after seven years at Darwin's side, Covington parts with his master in England to strike out for the wide-open Australian frontier . For all of the main character's likeability , the earlier part of the book fails to transcend the overly familiar structure of a seagoing coming-ofage story. McDonald's attention to verisimilitude is admirable but overdone : after Covington joins with Darwin, the narrative bogs down in scientific and period detail. (The gruntwork of great science doesn't necessarily make for great fiction, and despite all its scientific importance , the voyage of the Beagle was rather uneventful.) The true crux of the story takes place thirty years later, in sections interwoven with the tale of Darwin's expedition. Covington is now middle aged and nearly deaf, a man of some means. He is presented to us through the eyes of David MacCracken , a young American doctor living on the coast of New South Wales. With MacCracken, Covington is able to both re-create and improve upon his relationship with Darwin. The young doctor changes his life as much as the young naturalist did, but this time the friendship is more egalitarian. The dynamic between the two men is intriguing, passing through cycles of dependency and frequent bouts of testiness. These conflicts pale in comparison to the debate raging inside Covington 's skull, however, for his first copy of The Origin ofSpecies is due to arrive any day. Though it didn'tfully register at the time, when he was bagging finches and transcribing the notes that would be the basis for the text, Covington had assisted Darwin in writing a book that refuted creationism. Now he must reconcile the two most significant forces in his life, and McDonald describes this The Missouri Review · 193 struggle elegantly. Even more ingenious is how Darwin's principle of natural selection plays out in Covington 's relationship with his friends, his family and his future. (RB) Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov read by Jeremy Irons Random House (Audio), 1997, 8 cassettes, 12 hours, unabridged, $39.95 While the subject of Lolita—the sexual exploitation of a child— would seem to limit the tone of the story to unpleasant gritty realism, Nabokov breaks out of those limits by making the book to some extent a palpably "false" and inflated gothic confection à la Edgar Allan Poe. Humbert Humbert, the seducer, makes himself out to be a romantic exile, lost in the arabesques of his attraction to little girls. His machinations against Lolita's mother are the stuff of comedy—at least until Mrs. Haze discovers his diary, runs out of the house in horror, and is struck down by a car. The first seduction scene is written with hallucinogenic intensity, and it, along with many others, is partly comic in tone as Humbert's manic efforts to control...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 193-194
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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