If your taste in prose runs to the purple, then Peter Hathaway Capstick is your man. Not since the heyday of such magazines as True, Argosy and Saga has an adventure writer so closely approached the ultraviolet end of the spectrum. But in this era of gray minimalism, the effect is often downright delightful.
Capstick, 49, a New Jersey-born stockbroker turned white hunter, has been touted as the heir to Robert Ruark and even Ernest Hemingway since his first book of African hunting yarns, Death in the Long Grass, was published in 1978. Six books followed, each gaudier than the previous in its use of outrageous simile and metaphor. Now comes Last Horizons: Hunting, Fishing, and Shooting on Five Continents (St. Martin's Press, $19.95), a collection of Capstick's magazine pieces dating back to 1969. The locales range from Nicaragua (where he harpoons freshwater sharks) to India (pigsticking during the height of the Raj) to medieval England (the setting for a fantasy about the opening day of the dragon-spearing season). The emphasis, though, is on Africa. Whatever the place, the intrepid Capstick evokes it in imagery that seems to have been achieved by feeding a Webster's Unabridged into a Cuisinart. Examples:
•Capstick on being attacked by a hippopotamus: "Over my shoulder I saw a bull hippo the size of a mobile home heading straight at me like a bowling ball thrown by an irate Dick Butkus...the [hippo's] mouth open and looking like a hall closet with curving, white tusks."
•Capstick on being charged by an elephant in Ethiopia: "As the seconds ticked by, I wondered vaguely to myself what in the world I was doing here, freezing, dying of thirst, and about to be stomped into furry pink Jell-O in a land that was already hoary with history before King Solomon and his Merry Band pried their first diamond from her rugged surface...."
February 13, 1989
•Capstick on confronting Africa's deadliest snake: "The checklist for the black mamba is about as cheery as the 'Things to Do Today' memo pad of a Gestapo colonel.... The mouth contains shortish hypodermic fangs, packing enough venom to kill most of a good-sized cocktail party...."
Often Capstick's imagery achieves effects other than what he intends, as in this description of an idyllic Yucatàn duck hunt: "Ducks were everywhere, trading in clouds around and between the three ponds we were shooting, thicker than houseflies during an August garbage strike." Sometimes the writing is just plain silly. Take his account of having his foot bitten by a supposedly dead jaguar in Brazil: "I untied the bitten-through lace, listening to guariba monkeys shrilling through shaded emerald jungle as green and damp as my mildewed underwear, the whole forest of Xingú a verdant poussecafè of vegetation layered by sun and storm.... Possibly because he didn't like the taste of Neolite, to my infinite relief after a couple of thoughtful chews he accepted a better offer in a nearby patch of bush with the visibility of a pot of fettucine Alfredo verdi [sic]."
Capstick and his hunting buddies never just load their rifles; they "insert" pairs of "brass panatellas" or "frankfurter-sized cartridges." Here's one client arming a double-barreled Jeffery Express: "Quietly, Antonio chambered a pair of the four-and-a-half-inch .475s, like dropping a couple of bananas down a drainpipe." Clearly, Capstick enjoys eating, drinking and smoking as much as he does hunting.
Yet the impact of these verbal pyrotechnics is refreshingly surrealistic—the narrative equivalent of a collaboration between Bosch and Dali. However, on the bedrock levels of African natural history, tribal sociology and appropriate sporting weapons, Capstick is dead accurate. He also can write action as cleanly and suspensefully as the best of his predecessors, and with far more intentional humor. He is certainly never boring.
Perhaps a whirlwind of mixed metaphors is the most effective way to convey the excitement and contradictions of contemporary Africa. Another volume of Capstickery is due out next year. As Pliny wrote, "Out of Africa, always something new.