Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Under the Radar

Under the Radar by Oliver Matthon is about people who pick wild mushrooms in northern California.  It's a zine 40 pages long but reads like a short book.  It's an ethnography.  Reading it, I got a sense of northern California mushroom picking culture.

Under the Radar focuses on one man, a buyer named Alvin.  This is a good center to the story.  We see Alvin being approached by many pickers, and Alvin has to accept or reject the pickers' harvests.  There's sometimes conflict.

Oliver Matthon himself is central to the story too.  It's his adventure.

Something I noticed about Under the Radar was the lack of women.  There's one important woman noted: Connie, who drives a brand new SUV and is the link between the rich of Napa and the poor mushroom pickers.  Other than that, women are just noted as the girlfriends of pickers.  The men are the real players here.  This made me uncomfortable, and I can't tell whether it's a problem with the writing, a problem with the world, or a combination of the two. 

Something else I noticed was that the writing seemed to jump around.  Sometimes details were given in a seemingly-random fashion--I didn't see connections between the ideas.  A lot of information is thrown at the reader--people's beer bellies, how tight their jeans are, hair color, etc.  Oliver Matthon seemed to want to give us a quick sketch of a person.  I would have welcomed more depth, but maybe he was limited to 40 pages. 

I liked when I saw a scene--I liked when Oliver Matthon painted a picture for me, as opposed to listing details.  One of my favorite parts was at the pot farm, a scene of decadence and humor.  Here is a quote.

"When I opened the door, he was sitting on a chair in the middle of
the room with no shirt on, trimming buds on a huge platter
balanced on his knees, telling weed stories over loud music. There
were bags of pot everywhere. The old man was lying down on the
couch, smoking a cigarette. His son and the Mexican kid were
preparing to smoke weed through a black trumpet mushroom."

I think Under the Radar would have been better as a regular-length book.  I hope other ethnographers are documenting cultural realities in a more thorough way.   

Under the Radar could be a good introduction to the mushroom picking life for someone who is newly feeling an interest in it.  It could be a snapshot document of a particular culture in a particular time and place.  It could be an interesting read for someone who's really into mushrooms and would like to know where they come from.

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