A Review of Steven Church’s One With the Tiger
June 22, 2018 § 2 Comments
By Logan Scott Wells
I am sitting on the starboard aft of a Carnival Cruise Ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. It is a cool summer night in 2011, and the ocean breeze carves goosebumps into my skin. My arm is draped over the thick metal railing on the side of the ship, and I am staring down at the churning waters below. They are dark and bubbling, like a steady boil on a stove. The ship’s fluorescent lights bob up and down like luminescent sea creatures cresting through a wave. Their sloshing movement beckons me forward, and there is only one thought that consumes my brain.
I want to jump.
There’s no particular reason for this—I am a healthy 18-year old about to start his college career, and I have nothing even resembling a suicidal ideation. Yet the longer I stand there, watching the sea foam form and dissipate, the more I am overcome with a sudden, inexplicable yearning to step away from the deck, steady myself for just a moment, and then leap with reckless abandon into the bottomless depths of the ocean.
It is this very compulsion to “leap into an enormous force beyond our control, perhaps even beyond our comprehension,” that fascinates author Steven Church in his newest book, One With the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters Between Humans and Animals.
Really, more than the leap itself, Church’s essayistic style seeks to unearth an essence of feeling that comes from encounters with the violent and the sublime. The book begins with the story of David Villabos—a New York man who willingly leapt from a monorail into a tiger cage at the Bronx Zoo in 2012. This story inspired Church to “understand the thinking of such savage and unruly minds…to get close to the subjectivity of people who push the boundaries between human and animal.”
One With the Tiger, then, draws from encounters with apex predators—everything from tigers and grizzly bears to boxing legend “Iron” Mike Tyson—to blur the distinction between man and beast. “It is not the grisly reality of the attack that most interest me,” Church writes about a 2003 grizzly bear attack that took the lives of Timothy Treadwell and his girlfriend Aime, “but the ecstatic and imagined reality.”
This “ecstatic truth,” as Church calls it, is the same one that saw me yearning to leap into a vast and endless sea that night in 2011. It is not burdened by logic or self-preservation, but rather, a more wild and vibrant rationality—one “more dangerous and seductive than a truth shaped only by facts.”
Church taps into this unconscious, subliminal state throughout the book by creating a kind of liminal space for these ideas and conversations to exist. He seamlessly transitions from harrowing tales of young boys being mauled to death by polar bears to an examination of the 1983 television series Manimal which featured a shape shifting private detective who fought crime by morphing into various predators. At one point, he even shares an anecdote of his high school sporting days when he matched up against a highly-ranked Division I opponent and bullied the young man both physically and emotionally.
Far from being erratic, however, this style of narration allows Church to explore the invisible link between the physical and spiritual. It leads him ultimately to the question of what it means to bond intimately with an apex predator and why human beings are so fascinated by the “compelling minority” of thrill-seekers who are willing to push the boundaries of what is safe and acceptable.
I often think about what would have happened to me if I did jump off the ship back in 2011. Likely, I would have drowned—been swept away by the hard crashing waves and my body never recovered. Even if this didn’t happen, there was no one around to see me, and it would have been hours before anyone even noticed I was gone. Death was a near inevitability I knew, but even so, I still wanted to make that jump.
Church’s essays are a little like that feeling. They bring you closer to a force “beyond rationality, beyond understanding, and beyond God.” They ask that you leap into the tiger pit, and once you are there, it is surprising to find the encounter more familiar than you thought.
Logan Scott Wells holds an MA in creative writing from Ohio University. His work has recently appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Quail Bell Magazine, and others.