Snake-Bit Book—Review: The Snake Charmer by Jamie James

It comes as little surprise that Joe Slowinski, the central figure in The Snake Charmer, gets bitten by a deadly snake and dies.

Don’t worry: I haven’t spoiled anything. The book’s dust jacket reveals Slowinski’fate, so readers know up-front what to expect.

But readers who read Jamie James’s real-life account will quickly realize that Slowinski, one of the world’s most renowned snake experts, is a herpetological accident waiting to happen.

The Snake Charmer: A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge is part biography, part quest, and part scientific exploration. There are a lot of snakes, too. Reader beware.

James doesn’t write an adventure story in the traditional sense, but his book tries to read like one and, for the most part, succeeds because of Slowinski’s action-adventure mentality. Think: a snake version of the Crocodile Hunter without the Australian accent or the TV cameras.

The Joe Slowinski depicted in James’s book is a wunderkind of the reptile world. At thirty-eight, he’s “one of the most brilliant biologists of his time.” He’s eccentric, professionally respected, and a little crazy. He has a “[p]assionate love of desolate places that field herpetologists share with religious mystics and soldiers of fortune,” James writes.

Slowinski has a little of both in him.

James has great respect for his subject matter despite the cavalier attitude and sometimes-reckless behavior Slowinski exhibits. Slowinski has charm to burn—ergo the book’s title—which helps James portray him as, alternately, a likeable maverick and a misunderstood genius.

He also displays an astounding lack of common sense, which James tries to pass off as just one more endearing trait of the eccentric scientist.

For instance, Slowinski once shipped a box with a rattlesnake in it to a friend via the cargo hold of a passenger bus; the box, naturally, came apart in transit. On other occasion, he smooth-talked a professor into letting him purchase a monocled cobra by telling him it was a baby rather than a four-foot-long adult; when the cobra escaped in the lab, it was “a medical disaster—not to mention a lawsuit—waiting to happen.” When showboating for a TV crew, a spitting cobra hits him in the eyes with a shot of spit; fortunately, the cobra had been spitting so much already it was out of venom.

There are even index entries under Slowinki’s name for such topics as “flouting rules and laws,” “impulsiveness of,” and “snakebites of.”

So when Slowinski, deep in the heart of the remote Burmese jungle on a scientific expedition, reaches into a bag with snakes in it, it comes as no surprise that a serpent latches onto one of his fingers. Although it’s less than ten inches long, the serpent happens to be a many-banded krait, the most venomous snake species in Asia.

James actually starts his book with the fateful snakebite. It’s the perfect attention-grabber. Then he flashes back to Slowinski’s childhood and, in the fine tradition of a Victorian novel, traces Slowinski’s entire life forward. James follows the rise of Slowinski’s career while also providing a lot of fascinating background information on snakes, the field of herpetology, and biological history. While such discussions sometimes feel like narrative tangents, James handles such subjects competently, and they add fullness to the text.

The final quarter of the book is devoted to Slowinski’s last scientific expedition, a trail-blazing endeavor designed to explore the northern forests of Burma along the foothills of the Himalayas. James uses first-person accounts to piece together what happened, and the book takes on a decidedly different tone from the earlier biographical sections. This becomes a tale of Man-versus-Nature. For Slowinski, it also becomes a personal quest—although James never quite articulates the purpose of the quest or its stakes.

In the midst of all that, the many-banded krait that bites Slowinski isn’t especially significant—except that it delivers the fatal bite. Expedition members then work desperately for thirty hours trying to keep Slowinski alive through mouth-to-mouth respiration, waiting for a wilderness rescue that never arrives.

“The Snake Charmer” himself isn’t as charming as the author would have us believe, but Slowinski is a compelling individual nonetheless, making The Snake Charmer as entrancing as a piper is to a cobra. Slowinski is headed for a snake bite, and it’s hard not to want to watch.

2 replies »

  1. I’m with Gall on this one. It sounds like Custer at the Little Bighorn, except with snakes and without the interesting stuff.