Most humans have an instinctive fear of snakes which can save their lives, but scientist Joe Slowinski apparently did not. He was fatally attracted to the slithering reptiles he devoted his life to studying.
“The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge” by Jamie James (Hyperion: 272 pp., $24.95) tells the fascinating, tragic story of Slowinski, whose experiences would create fear and avoidance in most of us.
James begins in the jungles of Burma, where Slowinski, a world-renowned herpetologist, gets bitten by one of the world’s most poisonous snakes during an expedition in 2001. That snake, a krait, “carries enough concentrated toxin to kill two dozen grown men,” and, despite his team’s frantic efforts, Slowinski dies before he can be rescued.
Like Jon Krakauer’s portrayal of Christopher McCandless in “Into The Wild,” James’ portrait of Slowinski draws readers on even though, as in Krakauer’s book, we feel the same sense of hopelessness that he will be overwhelmed by the inherent danger in which he puts himself.
As James illustrates, Slowinski’s passion for snakes was evinced early in life. When bitten by his non-poisonous pet boa constrictor as an adolescent, he displayed his bite mark with pride and regarded it as a badge of honor. This uncommon reaction distinguished him at a young age from the rest of us.
James identifies with Slowinski, and the story feels as if the author were joining him on the journey and participating joyfully in its dangers and conquests. He elaborates countless facts and detailed descriptions about herpetology, almost making you want to go snake-catching. It also makes you think that snake catchers must be crazy to enjoy so potentially lethal an occupation.