Written by Jamie James
Hyperion Books, New York, NY
Publication date: 2008
Hardcover - 260 pages, including index
Joseph Bruno Slowinski was in love with Myanmar – its people, its landscapes, and especially its snakes.
Joe Slowinski was a herpetologist (a scientist working with reptiles and amphibians), and Myanmar was perfect for his line of work – the Burmese people were warm-hearted and intellectually curious (although its government was considerably less so), and the countryside was rife with unknown species. Joe imagined that Myanmar's under-studied wildlife would help boost his career – instead, Myanmar helped end it.
Brash but Intelligent
The Snake Charmer explores Joe Slowinski’s brief but fruitful life, from his childhood catching reptiles in the Midwest to that fateful Myanmar expedition in 2001 that cost him his life.
The book paints a picture of an intelligent, passionate scientist. Joe Slowinski was idolized by his fellow “herps”. He was ruthless and single-minded at his work, inspiring idol worship in some and resentment in others. He also cultivated a brash, macho image, to the extent of taking unwise risks around poisonous snakes.
It’s in Myanmar where Joe’s clashes with authority, his brash outlook in life, and his passion for snakes all come to a head. Joe’s final expedition plays out in a beautiful yet deadly land – Joe and his team have to contend with Burmese corruption and almost impassable jungle, even as they suffer decreasing morale and nonexistent support from the outside.
When the end comes for Joe, the story shifts to the team's attempt to keep Joe alive for a rescue that would never come. Despite the best efforts of the U.S. Embassy staff in Rangoon, Slowinski's rescue is complicated by Burmese red tape and the attacks on the World Trade Center.
Jamie James expertly places the reader on a ringside seat of Joe Slowinski’s life. We see it all in intimate detail: Joe's professional alliances and rivalries, disjointed personal relationships, and above all his devotion to his work.
The book is helped in no small part by Joe's own meticulous notes, on top of interviews with his colleagues and loved ones. (The book's website also provides interesting supplementary material, like video from the National Geographic show described in pages 132-134.)
If you like books that pit man against nature, then the Snake Charmer delivers. A fair comparison can be made to Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild: tragedy ensues when an intelligent, passionate man pushes Mother Nature too far.