'The Orchid Thief' -- deep obsession


"The Orchid Thief," by Susan Orlean. Random House. 282 pages. $25.

The Orchid Thief," the first book-length narrative by New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean, begins as the tale of John Laroche, an orchid collector arrested for poaching rare blooms from the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, a wild swamp near Naples, Fla. But it's really the story of a small world of people mad for otherworldly flowers, and about the quest for unattainable beauty, and about the close link between the hope of finding something you crave and the fear of not finding it, and about Florida, the untamed home of much of the above.

Orlean is one of the New Yorker's best writers, and "The Orchid Thief," a delightful, surprising read, doesn't disappoint even by the high standards of her earlier work. Her prose is exceptionally clear-eyed, free of the underbrush of unnecessary words.

A conventional work of literary journalism, "The Orchid Thief" is not. Orlean takes in everything, and so reading her feels a little bit like life happening, because the reader literally tags along as it does. You have no idea where you'll all end up, and Orlean makes plain that she doesn't either. That doesn't matter. There are too many writers in the world already who know at the beginning of reporting a story what their conclusions will be.

Laroche, an entrepreneurial outlaw always on the prowl for the next lucrative obsession, is a worthy vehicle for a tour of the history of orchid hunting and its modern-day practitioners -- like Martin Motes, the English professor/orchidologist who quotes Milton to his plants, and Lee Moore the Adventurer, an international smuggler of orchids and pre-Columbian art.

Orlean's account of this world is narrative as big-screen TV with stereo sound. At the lavish home of orchid cultivator Bob Fuchs, the reader hears the chuk-chuk-chuk of the ceiling fan and the ice tinkling in the lemonade, and sees the "green grass and green palm fronds and the blur of green in his shadehouses."

Along the road the writer often wanders, and her sidetracks, if off point, are always fun. One hears the voices of the women in a store who inexplicably refuse to sell Orlean a container of Jell-O, and the chidings of a dental hygienist who comes upon Motes at a show and reminds him that his teeth need cleaning.

Sometimes Orlean is so good at capturing detail that a sense of the whole is lost, and this is "The Orchid Thief's" one nagging flaw. In the end it can leave the reader in a bit of a blur -- the kind Orlean herself describes experiencing at an orchid show, when she turns her head so quickly that $4 million worth of flowers appear to smear like lipstick. The climax of Laroche's story -- his abrupt renunciation of the orchid world that had consumed him -- is explained away without really being shown.

But even in this shortcoming, Orlean is winning. In the end, she makes the important point that the very nature of such esoteric passion is that an outsider can never completely capture it. Like the orchid thieves, every one of us combs this world in pursuit of something to crave and want, something that sets us apart even as it brings us together. And all of us, deep down, can understand that.

Kate Shatzkin is a reporter for The Sun. Previous to that, she studied at Yale Law School, and has spent most of her 11 years as a journalist reporting on courts, police and social issues.

Pub Date: 01/17/99

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