Anyone who writes a novel about environmental activists (a project I’ve tried myself) has to enlist the reader’s sympathy for people considered kooks, or terrorists, or dippy, tree-hugging hippies. As Richard Melo puts it in his novel about eco-saboteurs, JOKERMAN 8, “I myself have never heard a compelling logical explanation for the preservation of species. The species-
Yes, I do. In the absence of compelling logical explanations, Melo goes to great lengths to make his band of merry eco-pranksters, a collective known as Jokerman 8, sympathetic. They are, in fact, the sweetest, most loving, most purely moral collection of characters on the planet. Born in the late sixties, they are heirs to all that’s best from that time: the belief in social change and the spirit of rock and roll. Guided by U2’s Joshua Tree album and haunted by the specter of Vietnam, the Jokerman 8 travel the world from their headquarters in Northern California. They sink whaling ships in Iceland, stop the slaughter of wolves in British Columbia, spike trees in old-growth forests in Oregon, and they never, ever hurt anybody.
JOKERMAN 8 is full of vivid descriptions of these pranks. Melo’s writing is sharpest when providing such details, and in sketching a particular place and time in the lives of his characters—people in their early twenties, living communally, dropping in and out of college, willing to put their lives on the line for what they believe.
In keeping with this romantic time of life, the tone of the novel is passionate, euphoric, and Whitman-esque. The narrative circles restlessly from the sixties to the early nineties, recounting the histories of an almost dizzying number of characters. Three of them, in particular, stand out: Willie, a baseball-loving philosopher who falls victim to cancer; Jude, a beautiful and intelligent Stanford track star who sacrifices everything to protect the natural world; and Elinor Cookee, a type-A personality who keeps the group organized.
Yet Melo’s characters often get swept under his free- wheeling narration. Like Edward Abbey (another guiding spirit of the book) Melo is never afraid to inject politics into his story.The polemics in JOKERMAN 8 build up a forceful degree of indignation, which makes for a good manifesto; the people frequently play second fiddle to the politics.
Only one type of problem arises among the characters in this book: unrequited love. Elinor Cookee loves a guy named TS, who loves Jude, who is too preoccupied with her dead father to love anybody. There’s a wealth of potentially volatile complications here, but none of them ever bubble to the surface, rupturing friendships or interfering with the eco-tasks at hand. All the characters seem to accept the hopelessness of their romantic situations with equanimity. For much of the time I spent reading JOKERMAN 8, this frustrated me. But as I reached the end of the book, it occurred to me that Melo may be making a larger point about the environmental mindset. In a way, to be an environmentalist is accept a condition of unrequited love. You embrace your cause out of passion, not logic; despite the odds against it, you hope against hope that your love can save its object. JOKERMAN 8 surely evokes that capacity for love, the untidy, idealistic valentine that the environmentalist sends to the world.