Adam Leith Gollner's first book, The Fruit Hunters: A Story of Nature, Adventure, Commerce, and Obsession (Scribner, 272 pages, $25), reads like a travel guide through a Technicolor universe of exotic fruits; it's ripe with sensual descriptions and inundated with enough botanical trivia to overwhelm anyone, religious "fruitarian" or not. From Brazil and Montreal to Florida, Cameroon and Borneo, Gollner sniffs out nature's most bizarre fruits, trekking through jungles and street markets—and braving airport security—to explore his obsession because, as he writes: "[Fruits] represent everything that's wonderful in the world."
The Fruit Hunters gushes with prose that revels in the underworld of fruit smuggling, trading, selling, buying and grafting to uncover an entire subculture intoxicated with biophilia (love of life). Gollner, a seasoned journalist, delights in his promise that eating fruit is "tasting forgotten histories." He traces the life of fruits, both forbidden and common, and reports on the state of business and politics of fruit and the people whose lives depend on them, like Gary Snyder, the inventor of the grape-apple hybrid "Grapple."
On one of his expeditions, Gollner finds the Miracle Fruit, whose juices turn sour into sweet, and flesh that tastes like "chocolate-cardamom pellets dipped in clove-infused rose water." He devotes 23 pages to the durian, a spiky fruit that contains 43 different sulfur compounds and smells like rotting fish. He mentions the milk orange, swan-egg pears, the Oaxacan "tree of little skulls," bastard cherries, Congo goobers, bignays, fruits of the toad tree, and the mysterious coco de mer, which contains the largest seed in the world (weighing up to 45 pounds) and resembles the female reproductive region.
But the author's love for his subject is also, at times, his downfall. While filled with surprising facts and evocative prosody, The Fruit Hunters lacks a focused narrative drive. Gollner fills his chapters with countless lists of facts and historical anecdotes about the evolutions of fruits most of us have never heard of, but in places the book reads like a lyric field report. Regardless, this whirlwind food tour will tempt anyone with a sweet (or sour) tooth from first page to last.
Adam Leith Gollner reads at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Monday, May 26.