Edward O. Wilson’s new book, Anthill: A Novel, is, in many ways, a traditional first novel: it’s primarily a quasi-autobiographical fictional retelling of the author’s childhood and young manhood. Anthill is the tale of Wilson’s alter ego, a bug-loving Eagle Scout with the venerable Southern name of Raphael Semmes Cody, who grows up exploring nature in an old growth wilderness outside Mobile, Alabama.
On the other hand, most first-time novelists aren’t octogenarians. Nor are they, typically, the world’s top expert on ants. They haven’t been famous / notorious since the 1975 publication of their scientific masterwork, Sociobiology, either. Nor are they the chief inventor of the influential cause of preserving biodiversity.
And, generally speaking, autobiographical novels don’t include a 73-page centerpiece narrating the genocidal wars between ant colonies that young Raff tracks for his Insect Study merit badge. Or at least they don’t recount them from the ants’ point of view, with dialogue exchanged via chemical secretions: ”The signals now proclaimed, Food, food. I have found food, follow my trail!” (While ”ant fiction” sounds odd, to say the least, Wilson, a two-time Pulitzer winner, is a crackerjack storyteller. His ant chapters are as dramatic as the finest nature documentaries.)
And while many novelists are nostalgists, few are as thoroughly pro-conservative as E. O. Wilson. When it comes to sympathetic portrayals of white Republican Southerners, Wilson’s Anthill makes the recent Sandra Bullock hit movie The Blind Side seem like a Paul Krugman op-ed.
Particularly moving is the depiction in the first third of the book of the often-tense marriage between Raff’s redneck father, who works to instill in his son the best aspects of the good ole boy code of honor, and his old money mother, who names him after the Confederate admiral in her genteel family tree.