Native Air by Jonathan Howland Reviewed

Native Air, a novel, by Jonathan Howland (2022)

The Banff Mountain Literature Competition named Jonathan Howland’s novel Native Air its winner in the poetry and fiction category. Ordinarily I would be celebrating too, but for today, I just don’t care as much. Allow me to explain.

The chatter about Jonathan Howland’s Native Air picked up when it was nominated by the Boardman Tasker Award and made the short list for the Banff Mountain Literature Competition (in Banff’s Fiction and Poetry category) in September. I first heard about his novel when Chris Kalous interviewed Howland on the Enormocast podcast in May. Kalous, a climber, praised the book. Howland said he wasn’t aiming to earn accolades from climbers, adding, “That would be too easy.”

Would it be too easy?

Writing a climbing work of fiction doesn’t mean it will stand up among climbers or that it was significant. By significant I mean cover new ground or a new topic. Among climbing fiction, Rum Doodle was original and a spoof of classic expedition accounts and it was brilliant. I can even chuckle during a re-reading. Peak by Roland Smith is a young adult book that was a great introduction to Everest and professional climbing, and though heartwarming, wasn’t adding anything new. Peak by Eric Sparling was about a demon on K2 and a guided climb, which had a new twist on some climbing lore that makes it worth the read (if you can stomach the gore.) Dammed if You Don’t by Chris Kalman dealt with a theme and is a wonderful conversation starter about loving a place to death.

But what made Smith’s book good and Howland’s novel great was that they both used climbing activities to tell a very human and compelling non-climbing related story. (And arguably Kalman’s was too, but it focused more on the theme of conservation and the story about the protagonist was a means to speak about that topic.) Howland says he aimed for a general audience, or perhaps a literary audience. He didn’t try to appeal to climbers. His theme was grief and his chariot for taking the reading on his tour was rock climbing.

The novel is told from the perspective of character and narrator Joe Holland about his friendship and deep partnership with Pete Hunter, and his relationship with his life partner and wife Nor Rhodes and Pete’s and Nor’s children, particularly Will. When I try to write the summary without spoilers like this it really makes the saga appear to be a dull read. It’s not. Joe and Pete are badasses on the rock from the Adirondacks to South America, but mostly in the Valley and Sierras.

I really enjoyed the contrasting perspectives of climbing in the 1980s outdoors to the early 2000s and climbing gyms. There is a brief but important moment when Joe returns to climbing about ten years after parting ways with Pete for seminary and enters an indoor climbing gym. Howland includes all the things I have thought about transitioning from my own grungy gym in Niagara Falls, NY in the 1990s to transformation of my gym in Alexandria, VA after 2010; I went from insider to stylish and at risk of being a poser looking for the post-send lattes.

I have only two issues with the book. Pete and Nor met during the college years and Nor went on to being an emergency room physician. Nor had been living and being educated in conservative Northeastern schools and yet she kept returning to visit Pete in his dirtbag lifestyle. Perhaps that was actually part of the appeal to her. I was also surprised by how every character, except Astrid, climbs and even Nor replaces Joe on some difficult routes with Pete. It made perfect sense for the story, but that element may have been contrived.

As a more minor criticism, Pete’s speech about the forefathers of climbing around the campfire was wonderfully laced with names climbers and mountain literature book nerds (like me!) recognize. It established Pete’s awareness of his part of climbing’s legacy, but Howland could have skipped it and it would have still been understood. I thought it was a bit awkward.

But by and large, climbers don’t read. They should, but they don’t. But they should read Howland’s Native Air. You should read this novel. Most of all, I read it because I was curious about this decades-long climbing saga Kalous presented on his podcast. Now that I have read Native Air for myself I am going to remember it for the emotional response of overwhelming love and relief that it drew out me. I was overcome by the conclusion and I practically cried. It made me want to hug my wife and kids and celebrate us being together.

Most of all, I loved that it was unashamedly, without interruption to give a technical explanation about how climbing was done (but once on my count) a story around climbing activities and obsession, but a human story that could have been about an obsession over ocean diving. It was brilliantly constructed.

Sometimes you and I learn that a book that just won a best-of award, the conversation abruptly shifts in the excitement of the news. What the author did to write it, and what the author is doing next, rather than what the book did that earned such merit falls far below the fold. For now, and for this review, I don’t care that Howland won, because I want simply encourage you to go read it. It will make you want to go climbing and it will make you a more loving person.

Rating: 5/5

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