Anthill isn’t set in the crime-infested, corruption-riddled streets of Baltimore, but the book’s major theme wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of The Wire: Every piece matters. But instead of drug-runners and cops, biologist and naturalist E.O. Wilson uses the ants of Nokobee County to show how even the smallest creatures can create wide-scale changes in their environment. Wilson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, and in his first novel, he brings a patient, studied approach to storytelling that works best in Anthill’s quieter scenes. The story threatens to become unwieldy whenever Wilson tries to inject too much suspense into his young hero’s quest to save the local woods, but for the most part, the measured pacing makes the information go down smoothly.
And there’s a lot of information, too. Wilson brings the same approach to describing the roots of Raphael “Raff” Semmes Cody as he does to describing the life and death arc of an ant community and the wildlife that so enraptures Raff as a child. That love of nature only deepens as the boy grows up, providing the closest thing to a through-line the novel can offer. Potential plots occasionally break through the narration’s smooth surface: Raff’s parents don’t get along very well, his mother’s family is considerably higher-class, and possible development in Nokobee might threaten the insects and animals that Raff cares for. But none of these plots ever rise above the level of mild concern. The story rambles forward, and its flirtations with urgency never yield satisfying results.
What does satisfy, though, is Wilson’s love of his subject, and his ability to convey that love without being didactic. At one point in Anthill, the regular narrative is interrupted by a long, detailed account of a group of anthills in Nokobee, and while in another novel, this sudden shift (coming at around the halfway point) in subject could’ve been an annoyance, here it serves to give a clearer sense of connection between the social world Raff inhabits and the natural one he’s trying to protect. Wilson has good grasp of character, and his prose is crisp without being overly clinical. In the end, the book is really just a lecture on naturalism delivered under the cover of fiction, but as lectures go, it’s worth attending.