Back to the Future

Houston novelist Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael—the basis of the new film Instinct—calls for a return to primitive ways. But we get to keep our modern pleasures.

July 1999By Comments

ALTHOUGH HE LIVES IN HOUSTON NOW, Daniel Quinn was coming to Austin for a dentist’s appointment and suggested that we meet at Sardine Rouge, a new French restaurant on Sixth Street. That choice might surprise Quinn’s fans. Over the past decade, in half a dozen books that include the best-selling 1992 novel Ishmael—the basis for the recently released (and critically panned) film Instinct, with Anthony Hopkins and Cuba Gooding, Jr.—Quinn has mounted a frontal assault on Western civilization and modern culture. He has done nothing less than call on us to reject our competitive, planet-consuming ways and return to the tribal ways of our primitive ancestors. The selection of a fancy French restaurant might seem out of character, but people are always getting Daniel Quinn wrong.

“They write to me and say, ‘I want to change the world; what should I give up?’” he says as he settles into a corner booth, scoffing at the notion that his ideas for fixing our culture might involve any austere rejection of its pleasures. “Well, I am not asking them to give up anything. That’s not how you change the world.”

With glasses and a white beard, the 64-year-old Quinn has a bit of the cleric about him, and indeed he received a Jesuit education growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, and was a postulant in the Trappist order as a young man, studying with renowned author Thomas Merton. Quinn leavens the piety, though, with an impish twinkle, like a Santa in a Playboy cartoon. His wife, Rennie, who has joined us, is taller and slim, a Modigliani with close-cropped hair and long earrings. The Quinns have been together for a long time, and it shows in the way they finish each other’s sentences and react as one to any perceived misstatement. He orders a single-malt Scotch, neat, to go with his pheasant, while she has a Stoli with her lobster bisque.

The pheasant days began for the Quinns in 1991. Five years earlier Daniel and Rennie had moved to Austin from Madrid, New Mexico, where they ran a regional newspaper, and he had begun to wonder if the book he’d spent eight years on, the statement of his personal philosophy that would take modern civilization apart at the seams, would ever be published. Quinn believed that there was something terribly wrong with our culture’s relationship to the natural world, something that would lead to catastrophe before long; moreover, he thought he could pinpoint the origin of this imbalance and even show how to solve it. It was the agricultural revolution in 8000 B.C., Quinn felt, that got us off track, creating land-hungry, hierarchical societies—which he calls Takers—that overwhelmed the ecologically healthy hunter-gatherer cultures, or Leavers. This Taker culture, which took over the world and produced modern civilization, doesn’t see man as part of nature but rather as separate from and superior to the rest of creation. We will have to kill off our own culture, Quinn concluded, destroy our myths of man’s superiority, if we are to survive.

Quinn sensed that he was onto a powerful idea, but the literary alchemy for expressing it continued to elude him. More than a decade of writing and seven completely different versions of didactic nonfiction had produced nothing but rejection slips.

“I think the darkest time was when I came home to find that he’d thrown out a thousand pages of writing,” Rennie says. Daniel shrugs and says, “Simply a writer’s discipline to discard failed drafts. You can’t have your ex-wife living in the garage, just in case.”

Then Rennie, who was supporting them by working as an editor for an educational publisher, happened to see an announcement for the Turner Tomorrow Awards, to be given by media mogul Ted Turner. The $500,000 first prize would go to the best novel containing positive solutions for global problems. “I’d been saying, ‘Why don’t you try your book as a novel?’” Rennie recalls. “The Turner prize convinced him to do it.”

The fictional twist Quinn came up with was Ishmael, a superintelligent, telepathic gorilla that stands in for the author and teaches his philosophy of life to a nameless, down-and-out writer-narrator. Their dialogue includes some lines that seem aimed right at the prize and must have warmed the cockles of Turner’s optimistic heart: “This is what we need,” the narrator concludes near the end of the book. “Not just stopping things. Not just less of things. People need something positive to work for.” The gorilla replies telepathically, “I think what you’re groping for is that people need more than to be scolded. . . . They need a vision of the world and of themselves that inspires them.” Against all odds, the long shot came in: Out of 2,500 entries, Ishmael, a speculative work of fiction by an unknown author, won the literary lottery, the largest book prize ever given.

The next day, though, writers William Styron and Peter Matthiessen, two of the Turner prize’s nine prestigious judges, protested Quinn’s selection, saying they hadn’t intended to give the entire prize to him and implying that the book wasn’t deserving. It was “a real Cinderella story,” Quinn told Newsweek at the time, “complete with the stepsisters howling at the side.” Another judge, Ray Bradbury, came to Quinn’s defense, calling Ishmael “a lovely book.” Turner wanted one winner, and Ishmael was it. The book, co-published by Turner and Bantam, went on to sell more than 300,000 copies and is now in its twenty-first printing.

The fuss was understandable. As a novel, Ishmael has neither memorable characters—halfhearted attempts to describe the gorilla’s “crinkled” brow and “huge, meaty aroma” don’t add up to much—nor a compelling plot. In fact, Ishmael hardly qualifies as a novel at all. “The only model I see is the dialogues of Plato,” Quinn says, ordering another Scotch. “In those, the characters are ideas, and the relation of the ideas to each other is the story.”

Ishmael follows in the literary tradition of the preachy pseudo-novel—of Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Carlos Castaneda’s don Juan books—with less literary atmosphere but a clearer and perhaps even more subversive message. It is the clarity of Quinn’s ideas, “the terrible lucidity,” as one reviewer put it, of his indictment of modern man, that makes Ishmael a prize-worthy page-turner. Is something wrong with modern culture’s relationship to the world, the gorilla wonders? Yes, the hapless narrator is forced to conclude after much debate. Is man inherently bad? No. Then what happened? Page by page, the gorilla teases the narrator—and, by extension, the reader—to enlightenment: “No one species shall make the life of the world its own.”

Mysteriously, despite the lack of plot, the Socratic dialogue between gorilla and pupil makes Ishmael suspenseful: Will this narrator ever figure it out, the reader wonders—and what is it, anyway? By the book’s end, I began to notice that my own view of the world had changed: The stream of horrific headlines in the daily paper seemed to validate Quinn’s charges; the idea that we’ve been doing the wrong thing for 10,000 years seemed not so far-fetched.

Young people have become the book’s most enthusiastic audience. A teenage boy I know, a hip seventeen-year-old who plays guitar in a rock band, says he has been more influenced by Ishmael than any other book he has ever read. “It has changed the way that I think drastically,” he told me. “I realized how much I take for granted and how interconnected everything is.” Ishmael is taught in more than two hundred schools nationwide, including ten colleges and universities and half a dozen high schools in Texas, in courses ranging from ancient civilizations to zoology. Its questioning message seems to resonate with teens, who flock to Quinn’s Web site and post rave reviews on Amazon.com using onscreen names like “hungrykid” and “xjeremiahx.” “I hear from a lot of young people who have no sense of purpose,” Quinn says. “I call them the Lost Kids. They want to do something. But what?”

Though Quinn has taken the book’s success in stride, even he was unprepared for its translation to film. “I tried for a while to write a screenplay based on Ishmael,” he admits, “but I concluded it was essentially unfilmable.” Hollywood producers Michael Taylor and Barbara Boyle were fans of the book, however, and sent it to Gerald DiPego, the New Age screenwriter of the moment (Phenomenon, Message in a Bottle). “A lot of people had read it,” DiPego recalls, “and no one could see it as a film unless you did ‘My Dinner With Andre the Gorilla’ or something like that. But I was very moved by the philosophy of the book, by the idea of pinpointing exactly where we as a species went wrong, so I asked for permission to reinvent the story, keeping the philosophical underpinnings.” Taylor and Boyle optioned the screen rights. “Disney still has the merchandising rights, I think,” Quinn says, laughing, “in case they want to market little gorillas.”

DiPego came up with the idea of delivering the gorilla’s message through a human character. Anthony Hopkins was cast as a brilliant anthropologist who develops ideas much like Ishmael’s from living with mountain gorillas. When poachers murder and kidnap members of his simian family, though, the scientist goes postal; Cuba Gooding, Jr., playing a psychiatrist who finds him in an American prison, tries to get through to him.

Although Quinn praises Taylor, Boyle, and DiPego for a sincere attempt to convey his ideas, he sounds relieved that the film was not called Ishmael. After all, the stand-in for his gorilla becomes a violent murderer in the film, which is just the sort of thing he avoided in the nearly plotless Platonic dialogue of his novel. “Instinct is said to have been ‘suggested by’ my book,” Quinn says with an exasperated shrug. “But I suppose anything can suggest anything else. The encyclopedia could suggest Instinct, for that matter. In a way, I feel blessed that no one will confuse the movie with the book.”

So it continues: People are always getting Daniel Quinn wrong. Some have mistaken his unconventional and philosophical bent for a wholehearted alliance with the counterculture, the hippie movement, Earth First!, and other “ninnyhammers, noodleheads, [and] gawkies,” as the narrator of Ishmael puts it. Even those who recommended Austin as a hometown to Quinn back in 1986 were mistaken about him. “Everyone told us Austin was the perfect place,” he says. “Turned out, it was perfect only for a certain type of person.”

Which type is that? I wonder. “Oh, you know, ex-hippies, bohemians,” Quinn says. “When the flower children came around, I was already over thirty, one of those people you couldn’t trust.”

“We could never find a decent restaurant in Austin,” Rennie complains. “We work at home, and going out is important to us. We had to join the Austin Club [a private dining club] to get an adult meal. We were in our mid-fifties then but still the youngest people there.”

In 1997 the Quinns moved to Houston and found their proper spot. They live in the Montrose area in a three-story townhouse with fourteen-foot ceilings, and much of their social life revolves around a neighborhood Italian restaurant called Riva’s. “The owner has all his customers reading Ishmael,” Quinn says.

Houston has even become an icon in Quinn’s new book, Beyond Civilization, due out in September. “Houston appeals to me,” he writes, “because it isn’t zoned, making it a crazy quilt of residential and commercial districts, and no one fusses if you run a business from your home.” After following Ishmael with a few less-successful novels on the same themes, including Story of B and My Ishmael (a sequel), Quinn has abandoned the fictional form in his new book, a series of one-page essays he describes as a nonfiction “mosaic.” In it Quinn finally addresses the question so many of his readers ask him: What can we do to change the world? Beyond Civilization calls for a “New Tribal Revolution,” with work-based communities connecting us to one another and the rest of the natural world.

As we slip out of Sardine Rouge into the blue night, it is apparent that the New Tribal Revolution has not yet begun. For this happens to be April 15, and Sixth Street is jammed with the cars of people trying to file their 1040’s in the downtown post office’s special drive-through lane. There is something apt about the scene, an on-cue dramatization of how we are captives of our culture, slaves to our very modernity, and Quinn can’t resist a chuckle at the expense of the poor taxpayers. Lines from his books tend to come back to you at moments like these. “People will still be living here in one hundred years,” Quinn writes in Beyond Civilization,if we start living in a new way soon.

“Otherwise, not.”

Michael DiLeo wrote about women novelists who write about Texas in the May 1998 issue of Texas Monthly.

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