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Book Note: Robert Ruark, The Honey Badger

I read this book about 22-Jun-2007. This is the first time I've read this book. The book is copyright 1965. This note was last modified Tuesday, 24-Jul-2007 13:45:31 PDT.

This note contains spoilers for the book.


Mainstream; excerpts from this were published in Playboy when it came out in 1965. This was Oleg's suggestion; I had never previously heard of the book or author.

It's the story of an author, from when he's in college until he dies. Mostly of his idiot relationships with women (not all the women are idiots), and of his love of Africa. The character is Alexander Barr, incidentally; I'll mostly refer to him as "Barr" I think.

I suspect it of being rather autobiographical; Ruark seems to have published several books on Africa, as Barr did, and he died at about the same age, and what the character died of gave enough advance warning that a real author in that situation could have included it in a book based on his own life. Both Ruark and Barr were in the Navy during WWII. Both started as newspapermen and branched into the magazines and fiction. Their first big success with novels came with one about the Mau Mau uprising. Yes, after checking up more on the author, I think the theory of autobiography is looking pretty good; I think the author intended us to see him and Barr as related.

The beast of the title is an African giant weasel type of thing, apparently (conveniently, there's an anecdoate involving one when Barr is in Africa). In the anecdote, one is trapped and then shot (the trapper originally intended to personally beat it to death with his stick) after it breaks into the henhouse and kills all the birds, far more than it could possibly eat. I can only take the title to be intended to apply to Barry; that his behavior is somewhat like that of the honey badger (which goes for the balls of humans it attacks, they say). So it's not a pretty picture. And if it's indeed autobiographical, well. But then Barr, by the end of the book, doesn't have so very pretty a picture of himself, either.

Barr has an amazing ability to fall in love with women, and then be completely unable to communicate with them about anything important or treat them as real people with minds and opinions and so forth, and hence of course his relationships are all disasters. Possibly the worst is his last, youngest, wife Penny, who he walks out on without explanation because he can't bring himself to discuss his impotence (due to prostate cancer) and the general downward trend of his health. The book seems to be based on an insupperable barrier between the sexes, which has been totally contrary to my experience.

Part of the problem may be that he had his romances in the 50s and 60s, in a social set that generally didn't allow women to develop a personality, interests, skills, etc. He does however have the exact same problems with an actress and a newspaperwoman (Penny's mother), even though they've avoided the traps, so the problem would seem to be pinpointed in Barr's attitudes and insecurities.

Barr and his set of manly men are into big-game hunting in Africa, and bull fights in Spain. (Barr was a friend of Hemmingway.) They all smoke all the time, and they all drink too much. One of the problems he has with Penny's friends (beyond the fact that they don't like his music) is that they don't drink much, some don't smoke, and they don't approve of blood sports. It occurs to me that his life probably saw more changes in social attitudes than mine has; and he was on the wrong end of the changes to boot.

His first wife Amelia has a long-standing gay male friend. This is common enough in the book that they're casually referred to as "household fags". There's a rather amazing scene towards the end where Amelia is discussing going back to take care of Barr in his last years with her household fag, and he makes some comments on the unhappy life he has lead. And blames his mother, in the end.

Ruark must have been of some significance; there seem to have been two collections of his work issued in the 1990s, and I've found references to three biographies of him (although one of them is dated October 2007).

Amusingly, Wikipedia® (on 27-Jun-2007) says "His last novel, The Honey Badger is extremely tedious and difficult to read. Indeed, this book was published posthumously." (Two other books were also published poshumously.)

Despite the bad Wikipedia review, I found it quite easy to read, though rather unpleasant (I kept wanting to shout "you idiot!").

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David Dyer-Bennet