Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Sixth Extinction”

The cataclysm, writes Elizabeth Kolbert, is us.

As with Kolbert’s earlier Field Notes to a Catastrophe, I would make this required reading in every school in the land. Say, high school. Freshmen would read Field Notes. Sophomores would read The Sixth Extinction. If I could wave a wand and make it so, I would. Will human ingenuity be able to outrun the pending disaster? I’m dubious. But it will only happen if we start with education and if we develop a rising population of citizens determined to tackle this as the only issue that counts.

Sure, there are plenty of other five-alarm issues but this one is happening. It’s global. It will touch all of us. And we can choose to care or choose to hope all the evidence is wrong. (Good luck with that hope thing.)

We can point to a bad hurricane season and say “anomaly.” We can point to an awful December in California with raging wildfires and say “anomaly.” We can point to a melting polar ice caps and say, well, the globe is constantly changing. We can bury our heads, quite literally, in the sand and keeping drilling for more oil, more gas, and frack our way to cheap energy. And, maybe, hope it all works out?

The Sixth Extinction, as Kolbert writes in her introduction, asks us to confront the horror of what’s coming. Yes—take a look around. It’s very possible that somewhere between 20 percent and 50 percent of the living species on the planet will be gone by the end of the century. That vanishing act is the result of global warming. It’s not an early warning. It’s a “now” warning.

Kolbert starts with the golden frogs in a town in the middle of a volcanic crater, formed about a million years ago, in central Panama. She looks at auks and ammonites, mastadons and bats. She gives us the overview about French naturalist Georges Cuvier and some lesser-known (to me) thinking developed by Charles Darwin. She swoops in on the Amazon rainforest, heads to the Great Barrier Reef and even pokes around her own backyard. But finding signs of global warming and its tangible impact on the planet is easy. “Such is the scope of the changes now taking place that I could have gone pretty much anywhere and, with the proper guidance, found signs of them.” Die-offs are everywhere.

Species go extinct all the time. Wikipedia reports that more than 99 percent of all species that ever lived, amounting to over five billion species, are thought to be extinct. It’s hard to wrap your head around that number or fact (at least, for me). But the number of mass extinctions, since the concept of extinction was first grasped a mere two centuries ago, is only five. So Kolbert narrows her focus on species that are emblematic of those creatures that have already gone extinct, like the auk; and species that may be trying to get our attention now, like the bat. And, in the process, makes a case that we are now on the cusp, perhaps a century or so deep into, Number Six.

The power in The Sixth Extinction (winner of The Pulitzer Prize) s how Kolbert reveals connectivity and inter-dependence between the fragile habitats of the species where she focuses her lens—and the way that man’s activity and decisions on how to live on the surface of the planet are dramatically altering the behaviors and environment for all other animals that call Earth home.

There is ample misery to contemplate in The Sixth Extinction, but the deteriorating condition of the major reef systems is acute. Kolbert heads to One Tree Island off the coast of Australia. Reefs are curious. “They are part animal, part vegetable, and part mineral, at once teeming with life and, at the same time, mostly dead,” writes Kolbert. Reefs have mastered the “alchemy” of calcification, but increasing acidification of the water is making them sick. The change in the water’s chemistry began to change with the onset of the industrial revolution. Kolbert’s explanation of the impact of carbon emissions on the oceans is, in short, brutal. Scary. Very, very scary. We are asking the oceans to carry too much of a burden from what we’re pumping into the air each and every day.

But acidification isn’t the only stress on coral reefs. “The roster of perils includes, but is not limited to: overfishing, which promotes the growth of algae that compete with corals; agricultural runoff, which also encourages algae growth; deforestation, which leads to siltation and reduces water clarity; and dynamite fishing, whose destructive potential would seem to be self-explanatory.”

Kolbert is like a geologist probing for soil samples in a fresh tract of land. No matter where she dips her reportorial stick, it seems, there is change related to the climate. And the evidence is, well, not in question. Our environment has been corrupted.

By us.

Poking around by the history of the term ‘Anthropocene’ (and Kolbert’s chapter on this issue of naming our era is compelling stuff, too), I ran across an article about the debate about the Anthropocene concept in Smithsonian. In 1992, New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin suggested the term ‘Anthrocene’ and, years, later, that morphed into a term that seems to have taken hold, ‘Anthropocene.’

(In 1992.)

The Smithsonian article, from 2013, discussed how the term for the Holocene epoch, which began 11,700 years ago after the last ice age, is outdated.

“Anthropocene has become an environmental buzzword ever since the atmospheric chemist and Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen popularized it in 2000,” writes Jonathan Stromberg in Smithsonian. “This year, the word has picked up velocity in elite science circles: It appeared in nearly 200 peer-reviewed articles, the publisher Elsevier has launched a new aca­demic journal titled Anthropocene and the IUGS convened a group of scholars to decide by 2016 whether to officially declare that the Holocene is over and the Anthropocene has begun.”

So it’s a good thing, to my way of thinking, that we’re down to choosing what labels to put on our new epoch. But a comment from Revkin put all of Kolbert’s work, for me, into perspective.

“Two billion years ago, cyanobacteria oxygenated the atmosphere and powerfully disrupted life on Earth,” he says. “But they didn’t know it. We’re the first species that’s become a planet-scale influence and is aware of that reality. That’s what distinguishes us.”

Um, let’s hope.

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Previously reviewed: Field Notes From A Catastrophe

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Chasing Spiders With A Pen: Gary Reilly’s War

A piece about the late Gary Reilly and his private war, which lasted long after he spent time as an MP in Vietnam.

On the Quivering Pen.  Here.

Thanks to David Abrams for the opportunity.

“Jack Up The Moderation”

A few thoughts (okay, rules!) for those who choose to moderate panels at book conferences, posted on the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers blog here.

Elizabeth Kolbert, “Field Notes From A Catastrophe”

Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes From a Catastrophe—Man, Nature and Climate Change is more than ten years old, but don’t let that dissuade you from reading this brisk, concise overview about the complexities of global warming and all the reasons we should be worried.

Very worried.

Kolbert zooms in and zooms out, from details to big-picture analysis. She visits the Alaskan village of Shismaref five miles off the coast of the Seward Peninsula. She heads to Swiss Camp, a research station on a platform drilled into the Greenland ice sheet. And, among other locations, she takes a look at the Monteverde Cloud Forest in north-central Costa Rica. Everywhere she goes are clear-eyed scientists doing their thing—observing, monitoring, measuring. And watching the world change under the pressures of global warming.

Everywhere Kolbert stops, the signs of change are abundant, unequivocal, unambiguous—all without being sensational. We are sloppy drunk on fossil fuels and show no interest in sobering up. Kolbert’s writing is matter-of-fact, understated, and calm. Published the same year as Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth was released (based on Al Gore’s talks on climate change), Kolbert’s narrative sounds the alarm in no uncertain terms, but it’s hardly a diatribe. Bitterness is buried in the brutal facts.

What is worrisome is to read this and know the data have only grown worse over the last decade, particularly with deniers backed by the billionaires who crowd the Oval Office, the backwards-thinking head of the EPA who scrubbed the agency’s website of any mention of climate change, and many of their collective backers, enablers and political supporters. The cautionary mention in Field Notes about increasing hurricane strength—the book was finishing up around the time of Hurricane Katrina—comes across as tame (and prescient) in the wake of Harvey, Irma and Maria during 2017.

Recently (Nov. 2, 2017), 13 federal agencies unveiled an exhaustive scientific report that blamed humans as the dominant cause for creating the warmest period in the history of civilization. This “finding” is in direct conflict with the Trump administration’s position on climate change, but should we be encouraged by its publication? What will it take to provoke our leaders to put some urgency behind the many steps that could be implemented to entice a new pattern of behavior and energy use?

It has been “business as usual,” for the most part, since Field Notes was published and Kolbert’s most devastating chapter underscores that even the introduction of various “stabilization wedges” won’t be easy to adopt. And they might be too late even if they were fully adopted now, given the momentum that climate change has gained.

The “wedges” are things like solar power, wind power, nuclear power, cutting energy use in residential and commercial buildings by a quarter, or slashing automobile use in half and simultaneously doubling fuel efficiency.  The “wedges” were developed by Robert Socolow, a professor of engineering at Princeton.

“All of Socolow’s calculations,” Kolbert writes, “are based on the notion—clearly hypothetical—that steps to stabilize emissions will be taken immediately, or at least within the next few years … The overriding message of Socolow’s wedges is that the longer we wait—and the more infrastructure we build without regard to its impact on emissions—the more daunting the task of keeping CO2 levels below 500 parts per million will become.”

(We sailed right past 400 PPM last in March 2017).

Will we heat the atmosphere to the point where there are crocodiles at the poles, as there were in the Cretaceous? Seems like we’re headed there.

Maybe, if we can make Field Notes required reading in every high school today, we could begin to turn the trend around. Maybe. It’s clear that public will, ultimately, will play a role in the solution. But will it be too late?

Right now, as Kolbert concludes, we are destroying ourselves. And doing precious little about it.

Q & A #59 – Sal Maida, “Four Strings, Phony Proof, and 300 45’s”

If you stalk the band Cracker (not that I would ever do such a thing), you’re going to get to know the guys in the band.

(Well, most of them. Crumbs – Cracker fans – know what I mean.)

In the band’s quarter-century run, they have had some excellent bass players, including Sal Maida.

I got chatting with Sal one night in 2013 at a tiny downstairs bar in the small Colorado mountain town of Frisco. Based on something he had posted, I knew he might know a few of my friends from when I was hanging around Boston clubs in the late 1970’s. We knew lots of people and bands in common (well, he knew the bands, I had only seen them).*

Anyway, as anyone who knows him will attest, Sal is a great guy. (Turns out, so are all the guys in Cracker.)

Sal Maida played bass on three tours with Roxy Music in the 1970’s. He also  toured with Sparks and performed and recorded with a bunch many, many bands. I’d love to see a complete list of all the recordings that include his bass guitar.

But wait, there’s more. Sal is also one of the biggest music fans you’ll ever encounter.

Ever.

Now, he’s penned a book called Four Strings, Phony Proof, and 300 45’s

It’s two-books-in-one. It’s a breezy, fun recap of his rock and roll career (which ain’t over yet) and he also picks his top 300 favorite 45’s.

What a book.

A full review follows.

First, Sal was also willing to answer a few questions by email. I could have asked a 1,000.

Here’s 11. Yes, eleven.

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Question: In Four Strings, you skip right over how you learned bass guitar. How did you learn? Who did you learn the most from in terms of technique or style? Any idea why the bass and not guitar or something else? And – most difficult/challenging band you ever played with in terms of demands on the role of the bass? What’s the key to a truly great bass player?

Sal Maida: I am self-taught and learned from playing along to records by The Kinks, The Byrds and of course, The Beatles. Probably learned the most from John Entwistle, Jack Bruce and especially Chris Squire. I always gravitated to the bass, I’m not a frustrated guitar player that switched over to bass. One of the most demanding bands I’ve ever played in is the band I am currently involved in called The Brando’s.

The key to a truly great bass player is taste. By that I mean playing for the song, locking in with the kick drum but also emphasizing the melody and leaving spaces.

Question: You auditioned like crazy over in London. It seems so fearless. You weren’t afraid of rejection? Weren’t worried about being good enough? I guess I’m asking the wrong guy, if you felt OK knocking on Paul McCartney’s door just to say hi. Was the process intimidating at all?

Sal (right) with Roxy Music.

Sal Maida: I wasn’t thinking about rejection because I wanted it so badly. The rejection hurt but it gave me a reality check that I had to work harder and up my game. That took a good two or three years of auditioning and hustling around until I found the right situation.

Question: Writing Four Strings, did you keep some sort of notes way back? Or just have a good memory? I assume it was all fairly vivid. How hard was it to stitch it all together?

Sal Maida: I did not keep notes or a diary but I wish I had! My memory is really good because I wasn’t an abuser of drugs and alcohol. It wasn’t any moral decision, it just didn’t appeal to me. The book was hard, sometimes torturous to put together but also a hell of a lot of fun.

Question: You started as an Anglophile, it seems to me, but in the end you’ve got the most far-ranging taste in music. I mean, you played with one of the most famous glam bands (Roxy Music) of all time but also toured for years with Cracker, All-American and blue jeans and, you know, no glitter. You dug punk. And soul. And funk. Did you do hip-hop? Explore country at any point? Well, The Byrds … Do you have any music you don’t really care for? Seems pretty rare to be both a musician with all your credits AND be a pure music fan/collector. True?

Sparks

Sal Maida: I have to say that I expanded my musical horizons deeply in the 80’s, when there wasn’t a lot of new music to enjoy. That’s when I delved into roots music, jazz, folk pre and post war blues, etc.

I love early hip-hop like Grandmaster Flash, Run D.M.C., Public Enemy, De La Soul, early L.L. Cool J. Nothing since has tickled my fancy but I am always checking stuff out like Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean and Chance the Rapper. I did explore country music heavily with a band called The Lovin’ Kind in New York in the early 90’s.

There are other musician/collectors out there, Lenny Kaye being the obvious example. But for the most part, the majority of musicians I know are not always obsessed with records and collecting.

Question: When you bought your very first record—LP or 45? Did you know you’d be a collector? Did you ever sell a record or trade in a record you wish you’d kept? Favorite possession on vinyl today? Did you always keep ticket stubs? Concert flyers? And, does ANYTHING beat that scratchy sound of a real record before the music kicks in?

Sal Maida: Don’t really remember my first record, probably a 45 that my mom brought home for me. The serious collecting didn’t start until around 1967. I’ve sold many records that I regret but it’s all part of the collector’s journey.

My favorite possession today is not one item but my collection of 45’s, especially the British singles. Didn’t save ticket stubs or collect posters. Nothing beats the sound of a rock n roll 45!

Question: How hard is it to make a living as a musician today versus, say, the 1960’s and 1970’s? How hard is it out there on the road? It seems like there are 5 million more bands than there were in 1971, when you had a feeling you could keep track of most of the music business if you made an effort. Thoughts? Better music scene today because so much to choose from? Or … ?

Sal (right) with Cracker at Mishawaka Inn outside Fort Collins

Sal Maida: I would say it’s harder today. Back then, things were more straightforward. The road is mostly really hard work but if things go as planned, it can be the most rewarding part of the whole experience. It’s so different now because the perception of music is what’s available which is pre-programmed pop.

If you dig in, there’s some incredible music out there. But it takes time and effort to find it and attention spans are extremely limited.

Question: What’s up with those bands that don’t pull off great live shows? Like The Byrds, you mention. Was it just the shows you saw? I’ve seen some rough shows by The Kinks but also some amazing ones, too. What gives? Have YOU ever been in the middle of an onstage disaster? I mean, it happens sometimes when the chemistry just ain’t happening, right?

Sal Maida: The Byrds were unfortunately a terrible live band. The records were absolutely brilliant but live, they were a train wreck. Now that does not include the band with Clarence White, who were a really good live band. The Kinks were spectacular the first time I saw them in 1965 but in their case, I think I caught a couple of bad shows in 1969 and 1971.

Question: I am a huge Rory Gallagher fan. I actually interviewed him twice and met him backstage another time. But I’ve never met anyone who saw the original Taste. Memories of him? Of that show? Did you ever see him after he went solo?

Sal Maida: Taste were fantastic at The Marquee the night I saw them! I love their second record “On the Boards.” I never did get to see Rory Gallagher solo.

Question: OK, Love. Why the heck weren’t they bigger? And The Move? From all the bands you’ve seen rise up, it must be frustrating to see some two-hit wonder make zillions of dollars and others struggle under the radar for years and years and years.

Sal Maida: I’ve always wondered about that. Why is a band that’s so undeniable not more popular? But now I realize that so many aspects have to align for that to happen.

Sal (right) with his Jerry Jones Longhorn playing recently with The Brandos.

Question: Fender or Rickenbacker? And what player had the best Rick-o-Sound ever?

Sal Maida: Wow, that’s a tough question. I’ve been enamored with the 4001 Rick but then became a staunch Fender man. Now I play Jerry Jones Longhorn and I am enthralled with that. Turns out that’s what Jack Bruce played on “Disraeli Gears.” Best Rick-O-Sound player ever is Chris Squire but in second place would have to be Martin Gordon, who played on “Kimono My House” by Sparks.

Question: Must have been brutal (I would think) to pick 300 songs. How many times did you pour over that list, thinking, ‘what did I miss, what did I miss?’

Sal Maida: A lot of people have asked me about that. It was difficult but so much fun to play the records, do the research and just get goosebumps all over again! After a while I just went with my choices and let the other 50 or so that were “bubbling under” go by the wayside.

Question: Finally – you’ve got so many obscure band names mentioned throughout Four Strings. Which makes me think you’ve got some great band names in your back pocket, ready to go when the need arises. Yes? Got one? Care to share?

Sal Maida: Yes, here’s a couple. The Ice Cream Gods and The Umbrella Attack!

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WHERE TO BUY FOUR STRINGS by Sal Maida: at the Hozac Records website here.

Sal’s Spin Cycle hip-shakin’ online radio show is on Little Water Radio here.

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REVIEW:

Sal Maida turns up everywhere.

Born and raised In Little Italy on the Lower East Side, he wangles his way to England as a dedicated Anglophile and music junkie in 1969. He gets Paul McCartney’s address from a guy in a record shop, knocks on Paul’s door, gets rebuffed by the housekeeper, and hangs around outside for a half hour until Paul and Linda come strolling out.

And Sal freezes—too star struck to utter a word, though Paul is being affable.

Then to Apple Studios (three hours later) for another encounter with Paul (who recognizes Sal). But wait! It turns out to be some kind of magical perfect meant-to-be day because none other than The Rolling Stones have been inside the studio rehearsing for the first post-Brian Jones tour and the next thing Sal knows there’s his bass hero Bill Wyman and Mick Jagger, right there, and soon Mick is giving him an autograph.

On his third trip to London in 1971, Sal brings his bass along and does a session with The Great Paul Thompson on drums, as Roxy Music started to take shape.
In 1973, Sal joins Roxy Music, replacing John Porter, and does three world tours with Bryan Ferry and company.

Back in The States, he joins American bubblegum glam band Milk ‘n’ Cookies, a band with a strong Sparks influence. Sal later joins The Maels (the band named after the brothers who founded Sparks) and, later, the Sparks lineup too.

The Runaways’ “Waitin’ For the Night” album, featuring such stars as Joan Jett and Lita Ford? That was an uncredited Sal on bass except for one track. Then a band called Velveteen and various projects with well-known artists like Dave Schramm (bring back The Schramms!) and Annie Golden and many others.

Then, years later, Sal toured with Cracker, Echo & The Bunnymen, Ronnie Spector and more recently worked on the HBO show “Vinyl” with both Lee Ranaldo (Sonic Youth) and John Doe (X and, well, John Doe).

On and on. And that’s only the skimming-the-surface highlights.

But that’s the performance side. He’s also a giant music fan and, well, if you read Four Strings, Phony Proof, and 300 45’s, which you should, you’ll find yourself immersed in the life and times of a guy who grew up with a thirst of music and quenched that thirst every single freaking chance he got. Clubs, concerts, bars, joints, festivals, parties, you name it. He once crashed a prom to see The Hollies.

As if that’s not enough, these days you can catch Sal every week as DJ of “Spin Cycle,” a killer online radio show on Little Water Radio. He is a curator like no other and knows both meaningful history and full-on trivia about producers, obscure musicians, songwriters, studios, band formations, and band breakups.

He’s a vacuum cleaner of information and, at the same time, you get the sense throughout the book that he’s still hankering for that gut-punch single, that tasty melody, that perfect three minutes of rocking bliss. It’s hard to imagine Sal going a day without music. Maybe an hour.

Four Strings is a blast. It’s a rip-roaring (and lightning quick) read as you skip through the bands and the years and the moments and brushes with your childhood heroes, who are now your cohorts and buddies up there traipsing around in rock star land.

A sample:

So there I am at the NME Xmas Party, Dec. 1973 at The Speakeasy. It’s a double date, myself and Pennie Smith (the photographer famous for The Clash’s London Calling album cover) and Nick Kent and Chrissie Hynde. All of a sudden, Chris Squire walks into the party, with not just the jacket that was supposedly ‘made specifically for me,’ but a whole suit made from the same material! Now, you have to understand that the reason I’m playing a Rickebacker 4001 is totally because of Mr. Chris Squires. So I say to Nick Kent, “Do you know Chris?”
He says, “Yes,” and I say,
“You have to introduce me to him!”
So the introduction is made and I am chatting to Mr. Squire about Rick basses and our respective bands, Yes and Roxy Music. He says his girlfriend is good mates with Eno’s girlfriend. Finally, I couldn’t help myself and I tell him that I’ve been wearing that exact jacket on the Roxy tour.
He says, “That explains it.”
I say, “Explains what?”
He says, “Well, the other night I was coming out of the Quadrophenia premiere when a young girl comes up to me and asks for my autograph, saying excitedly, ‘Aren’t you the bass player for Roxy Music?’

Yeah, just another kid from the corner of Mott & Broome who wound up chatting with the bass player for Yes at a Christmas party in London with Chrissie Hynde in tow and the woman who would later shoot the photo that became one of the most famous album covers of all time.

Four Strings is a love fest for music. No sex or drugs or kiss-and-tell. None of that. Sal’s blow-by-blow recap of his career ends in about 1978 in Four Strings. It’s meant to show how he got established in the business. There’s no trash talking, though a few mentions of bands that should have been better in concert but, in fact, sucked. Sal is simultaneously performer and fan. He’s the dealer and the junkie. He gigs with as many bands as he can and simultaneously takes in as many other bands as each night allows—all with the relentless appetite of a starving omnivore.

Beatles at Shea Stadium? Check. Rolling Stones? Yep. In fact, two Brian Jones shows, two Mick Taylors, one Ronnie Wood. Jimi, Zep, Kinks, Dave Clark 5, Ramones, T. Rex, The Doors (in 1967)—well, there isn’t enough room here to list them all. And Four Strings includes many of Sal’s photographs—including early Taste with Rory Gallagher (so jealous of that one) and Yes when it looked like some decent amps but not much more equipment than four high school kids meeting in the garage to jam for the first time.

The last big chunk of the book is Sal’s top 300 45’s of all time and Sal offers a paragraph of love to each of them. There are many familiar soul and rock and funk hits, often submitted with some nugget of fresh trivia, and many rarities like Honeybus, Brian Hyland, Doris Troy, Jody Reynolds, The Music Machine, William Bell, and The Critters. No band gets more than one 45 unless it’s a killer A/B side like “Paperback Writer” and “Rain.” Reading this section alone will make you want to call all your friends over and crank up the tunes.

In fact, the whole book will do that. So track down a copy and just try and imagine the soundtrack of Sal Maida’s incredible life.

Four Strings will put a smile on your face.

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Clip of Sal with Roxy Music doing “Street Life” in 1974.

 

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* One of the people Sal & I did know in common was Annie Golden, who used to come to Boston with The Shirts and stay with the band that I was living with at the time, a theatrical rock band called Orchestra Luna. Annie now has a role—as Norma Romano—in “Orange is the New Black.”

Thomas McGuane, “Crow Fair”

Montana Noir (Akashic Books) turned me on to Thomas McGuane’s compelling “Motherlode” and that sent me to his latest short-story collection, Crow Fair, which also includes that short story. Yes, I read it again. Four times? Five? It keeps on giving.

I found one other story in Crow Fair on par with “Motherlode,” a taut battle of survival and justice-by-nature in the great outdoors with the understated title “River Camp,” but the entire collection is worth reading.

Montana is the general backdrop, but scrap your Western clichés. McGuane’s characters are real world. They have their feet on the ground, loose as that foothold might be. Horizons are modest, dreams more so. Most McGuane characters accept their meagre lot. Those that push the envelope face consequences for their ambition, such as Dave in “Motherlode.” If all the characters in these stories could get together and compare notes, the collective analysis might suggest it’s a good idea for everyone to keep their head down and stay put. The Montanascape stands in for all-American hard knocks and earthy grit. The titles alone suggest the turf, from “Hubcaps” and “On a Dirt Road” to “The House on Sand Creek” and “An Old Man Who Liked to Fish.”

Bleak? Maybe. Entertaining? Yes. In spots, harrowing. Though for maximum action and story, head to “Motherlode” and “River Camp.”

McGuane’s stories feel so matter-of-fact. The writing is non-flashy; easy-going. Not every story comes with a twist or a jolt ending. McGuane mixes up the moods and flavors. Darkness ebbs and flows. The characters are often loners and misanthropes. Many ponder the next opportunity to pound a couple of “stiff ones.” McGuane doesn’t shine his prose on celebrities or town leaders. Family and economic strife abound. For every flash of upward mobility, as in “Prairie Girl,” there is a whole bunch of sideways and down.

There are story summaries of this collection elsewhere, but for me “Motherlode” is the collection’s, well, gem. Its 28 pages could be 280 if you wanted to blow this up, stretch it out. But McGuane goes for taut (no wonder it fit perfectly in the Montana Noir collection, too.) Like many of the other stories in Crow Fair it’s about rebirth. Our hero Dave, in fact, is very good at grasping (literally) life at birth. He is an expert at “detecting and synchronizing estrus.” After several false career starts and only finishing high school, Dave discovers he is a “genius preg tester.” Dave is so talented, he can detect a fetus at two months, “when the calf was smaller than a mouse.”

Dave’s keen sense of weight in his hands comes in handy when he holds the gun owned by a guy named Ray, who has forced Dave to drive him far out into the countryside to meet a woman in a sort of low-key kidnapping. When Dave gets his chance to hold the gun, he realizes it’s a fake. A prop. At the same time, Dave has a growing feeling that his own life needs a jolt. Dave feels like the only thing he has accomplished in his life is high school.

Ray’s destination is this woman, Morsel. He met her online. She lives with her father Weldon in a “a two-story ranch building barely hanging on to its last few chips of paint.” Dave delivers Ray but hangs around and it slowly dawns on him, especially given the lack of serious threat from Ray’s fake weapon, that he might have been handed an opportunity that he shouldn’t pass up. Morsel is involved in a drug-running scheme that might prove lucrative, selling bootleg OxyContin in the Bakken oil field.

“Motherlode” is compressed. It has been squeezed dry of excess. (I’m only touching on the essence of the plot.) For most part, the dialogue is in brisk snippets. And then Dave and Ray are talking after dinner in their room. Dave has just informed Ray he knows the gun is a fake. Ray seems only mildly concerned that his stunt has been revealed. And then Ray, after returning from taking a leak off the porch, launches into a monologue that is a piece of work. It’s hilarious, sad, colorful, detailed, and imaginative. Ray recounts his erstwhile acting career, right down some stints in community theater, and more adventures, too.

“Got married, had a baby girl, lost my job, got another one, went to Hawaii as a steward on a yacht belonging to a movie star, who was working at a snow-cone stand a year before the yacht, the coke, the babes, and the wine. I had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, but then I got into a fight with the movie star and got kicked off the boat at Diamond Head.”

The monologue opens up Dave’s mind about his own career trajectory and, even as Dave realizes Ray is born liar, the die is cast.

Dave makes a run to cross-country drive to Modesto to demonstrate his value to Ray and Morsel, refusing to acknowledge his natural talents. “He drove straight through, or nearly so. He stopped briefly in Idaho, Utah, and Nevada to walk among cows. His manner with cattle was so familiar that they didn’t run from him but gathered around in benign expectation. David sighed and jumped back in the car. He declined to pursue this feeling of regret.”

Poor Dave. Lucky us.