Root+Cause+by+Jim+Crissman


By Lisa Purchase Kelly

Jim Crissman's debut novel  Root Cause: The Story of a Food Fight Fugitive tells the story of Bruce Dinkle, who becomes obsessed with eating only local food. After alienating his family by enforcing a strict locavore and urban agriculturist lifestyle, he abandons them by bicycle on a quixotic quest to learn where food comes from.

Crissman grows a lot of his own food, likes a good local brew now and then, and rides his bicycle as much as he can. Bruce, the main character in his novel (Root Cause), also produces most of his own food, drinks a local microbrew, and rides a bike instead of driving a car. That's where the similarities end.

"He is not a sympathetic character," says Crissman of Bruce Dinkle. "He makes a lot of good arguments, he's not entirely wrong, he's just over the edge. It's his way or the highway. If Bruce was a women's rights advocate, he'd be a bra-burner. If he supported PETA, he'd be a cat-lady. This is someone who can take a good idea and run it right into the ground … try to save the world, but screw up your family."

And screw it up he does. After ramming his food ethics down their throats, he takes his malcontent and rides off into the sunset on his Schwinn to look for some sort of morally perfect lifestyle that his unwieldy family seems to be preventing him from attaining. At this point, wacky hijinx ensue … pretty much right from the beginning to the end of the book.

"I thought it was going to be a road movie, with Bruce moving through a variety of regions and foods. But the characters took over, and Bruce didn't get very far. It was fun to put the characters in a situation and throw stuff at them, and just see what happens. Sometimes they almost wrote their own dialogue."

There is a big dose of factual information on food, farm machinery, and fertilizers in the book. Crissman brought a good amount of his career background in veterinary medicine and pathology into the story. "The studies of pathology and toxicology give a person a pretty broad scientific perspective on the challenges we face as mammals living in a world of hostile agents—all the way from the factors that cause pneumonia in cows to chemical contaminants in human food. You get a good sense of what matters and what doesn't."

"The other thing about being a veterinarian," Crissman adds, "is that you quickly come to see humans as big hairless animals, with, like all species, their particular Achilles' heels with regard to disease susceptibility, as well as individual idiosyncrasies, sexuality, and herd behaviors."

When asked about the realism of some scenes, he explains, "As far as the veterinary scenes in the book, they come straight out of my farm and large animal vet experience. Changed and fictionalized, yes, but I absolutely have been up to my knees in snow, ice, mud, and manure while trying to administer a jugular I.V. to a half-wild critter tied to a fence on somebody's backyard hobby farm. And I've been in big efficient dairy farms where I've been up to my shoulder in the rectum of a hundred Holsteins before lunch. I've done a combination fetatomy/C-section on a fat yearling heifer tied to my truck in the rain. I've had to shoot an Amishman's workhorse mare when he couldn't. I've had to replace a cow's uterus in the middle of the night when it was prolapsed and frozen to the barn floor. I've had to don a rubber suit and lie down in semi-frozen pig manure to pull piglets out of a down sow while snow was blowing down my neck. It is the earthiest possible job—I'm still telling the stories from my one year in large animal practice before I beat a full retreat and went back to school to study pathology."

Crissman likens his writing style and content to the works of Carl Hiassin (sardonic author of environmental thrillers), farm veterinarian James Herriot ("but less wholesome"), and non-fiction food demagogue Michael Pollan. There's also a Tom Robbins element thrown in, with the off-beat and off-color character of Wanda the Goat-Lady (she's really into goats).

As for Jim Crissman's own philosophy of food politics: "I wanted an entertaining story that readers would not find preachy. I do think the local food movement is laudable, and, in fact, my wife and I grow a big vegetable garden, and I harvest almost all of our red meat by thinning the local deer herd with my bow. We get great satisfaction from a home-grown, home- hunted, and home-cooked meal. But I don’t think it is reasonable or possible to expect everyone to do that, or to expect anyone to get everything they eat and drink from inside a hundred mile circle all of the time, especially if you live in the northern Midwest."

Something bad boy Bruce Dinkle might have had to figure out for himself.

© Lisa Purchase Kelly, 2011

[1.19.2011]