Herpetologist Joe Slowinski died on September 12, 2001, in the forests of northern Burma, approximately thirty hours after he had been bitten by a many-banded krait. He was only 38. The Snake Charmer by Jamie James is both a biography of Slowinski and an account of the expedition that cost him his life.
The biography, drawing on family interviews and personal papers, takes up the first two thirds of the book. It reveals a type of character rather familiar to those of us who muck about with snakes: fearless, reckless (he was bitten numerous times) and just a little feral, absolutely fixated on the subject matter, and dripping, perhaps, with a wee bit too much testosterone. A difficult personality who nonetheless engendered fierce loyalty. But Slowinski was more than just Steve Irwin with a Ph.D.: he was stone-cold brilliant, a major contributor to the field of phylogenetics, and in particular to the systematics of elapid snakes — a point that James makes clear, if not at length. (Can’t say I blame him.) The final third reads like a feature article in Outside (and one was written about the incident, by another author), cataloguing the mishaps and bureaucratic nightmares involved in going deep into a restricted area of a country run by a deeply corrupt and paranoid regime, and the heroic attempts to keep him alive once the krait envenomated him while his support networks stateside were dealing with 9/11.
Where The Snake Charmer shines is in its portrayal of Slowinski himself; for all his reckless behaviour, he was not necessarily much for introspection. James has had to do his homework. I would very much have liked to see a bibliography, though, as in several James mentions publications that I wanted to look up for myself. In terms of the herpetology, for someone who is not necessarily well-versed in it James does a creditable job, though it’s clear he’s drawing on secondary sources for his material on snakes, and he makes a couple of minor errors that a herp-aware copyeditor (hi there) would have caught. But I’ve seen much worse. All in all an interesting read.