Book Review: ‘The Secret History of Bigfoot,’ by John O’Connor

THE SECRET HISTORY OF BIGFOOT: Field Notes on a North American Monster, by John O’Connor

Why do Americans need Bigfoot?

This question propels John O’Connor’s “Secret History of Bigfoot,” a farrago of participatory journalism, anthropological speculation, pop-culture parentheticals and broadsides against Donald Trump that often seems stuck together by sap and tar. And is none the worse for it.

O’Connor, a journalism professor who has written about Antarctica and competitive eating, undertook his vision quest in 2020, when lies competed with microbes to lay Americans to waste. Officially O’Connor was seeking Bigfoot — or at least the enduring wellspring of faith in Bigfoot, which struck him as just as elusive.

But fleeing Covid doubled as a way for O’Connor to flee “wokesters,” as he calls the urban bourgeoisie of the pandemic era. Their pieties about masks and politics, coupled with their disdain for the supernatural, unaccountably irked him. Like a forty-niner cutting ties with the uptight Victorians, O’Connor sought instead “wild places” where men are men, go unmasked and hope for moral redemption by Sasquatch.

As O’Connor tramps around putative Bigfoot habitats, he’s also fleeing his family. A stay-at-home dad in Cambridge, Mass., he became, during lockdown, a literal stay-at-home dad. His heretical hymn to child-free solitude is a breath of piney air. “This was what passed for an afternoon in Washington: porch beer. Fresh-caught clams. Butterflies in a currant-scented breeze. I loathed Boston just then.”

He echoes Karl Ove Knausgaard: Parenthood is a totalitarian regime that works, in O’Connor’s words, “by backing you into opposing corners that force you to view your children as the tiny miracles they’re portrayed to be in the wider culture, and as ongoing personal disasters.”

O’Connor’s own struggle is between the cultural portrayal of miracles and the hard fact of personal disasters. But, as deft as he is at observation, he can muster little cultural analysis where his own suffering is concerned. O’Connor savages himself as a white man with luxury problems, even roping in poor Bigfoot as “a white man’s self-ratifying pseudoscience” that represents a “transmogrification of Indigenous legends.” This is sad, and frustrating: You want to see him imagine his own demons as vividly as he does society’s.

He’s persuasive in arguing that the wider culture has thrown up Bigfoot as a worthy object of contemplation, a thirsty sop for national credulity. Referencing thinkers both familiar and obscure, O’Connor crafts a comprehensive popular history without getting bogged down enacting nerdy stunts. He is especially sure-footed in the terrain of writers, citing Thomas Bernhard, Peter Matthiessen and Henry David Thoreau.

The insights he gleans from his literary and topographical surveys are often strikingly original. He’s especially engaging when he compares Bigfooters to other kinds of trackers; the physical creeping through woodlands, often with guns, is, after all, what distinguishes Bigfooters from séance-holders or QAnon adherents.

When O’Connor recounts the vexed quest for the ivory-billed woodpecker, last seen in 1944, he casts a pathetic light on Bigfoot belief. Even academic ornithologists can be victims of cognitive bias; O’Connor’s description of their propensity to hallucinate a white bill on a common pileated woodpecker is heart-rending. The miracles of sunlight and birds in flight is not enough; we want angels.

O’Connor quickly discovers that hearing a firsthand Bigfoot encounter is powerful. On an expedition in the Berkshires, the group leader tells of a petrifying 1992 sighting: He was, he says, never the same man. I came to love these rapturous accounts of sightings across America. It’s this storytelling — popping eyes, blanched complexions, whispered astonishment — that keeps Bigfoot alive, another hearty homegrown subculture.

O’Connor lapses into laziness only when comparing Bigfoot fixation to Trumpism. Both, he says, are “an expression of white anxiety and fear mixed with nostalgia for an imagined American past.” A wallop of defeatism hits the prose: The same can and has been said of every culture at the moment of its colonization.

And despite the book’s considerable ingenuity, it isn’t always easy to care about a malcontent who leaves his family during the pandemic and takes to the woods to own the libs. And however refined O’Connor’s reading list, however ironic his approach, it’s hard to forget that defiance isn’t all fun and games; it can, taken too far, end in plots to kidnap governors or hang vice presidents.

But O’Connor is affable in the extreme, and funny, and in Bigfoot he has found an object of desire that unites in real intimacy conservationists who long for wilderness and seekers who long for transcendence. The scenes of men talking, flexing their capacities for vulnerability and grief, are stunners.

In these drumless drum circles, the same men who suspend disbelief about cryptozoology treat political conflict as though it didn’t exist. That itself is haunting — and verging on the paranormal.

THE SECRET HISTORY OF BIGFOOT: Field Notes on a North American Monster | By John O’Connor | Sourcebooks | 294 pp. | $26.99

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