Across the cover of The Snake Charmer: A Life And Death In Pursuit Of Knowledge winds a many-banded krait, a snake so venomous that American military personnel in Vietnam nicknamed it the two-step snake—as in, get bit, take two steps, fall over dead. While that's a slight exaggeration, the neurotoxin in the krait's saliva works over a matter of hours to shut down the human nervous system, leading to asphyxiation when the diaphragm stops responding. In the book's opening chapter, California Academy Of Science daredevil herpetologist Joe Slowinski leads a team through largely unexplored upper Burma, collecting specimens and trying to keep on the right side of the country's capricious military junta. When Slowinski reaches into a bag to examine a snake caught by one of his colleagues, and gets bitten on the finger, there's a moment of hope that the snake is a Dinodon, a non-venomous variety whose coloration almost perfectly mimics the krait's. But Slowinski knows better.
Jamie James uses Slowinski's 2001 mishap—surprisingly rare in herpetological fieldwork—as an entry point into his troubled career. Slowinski hunted for mastodon fossils in the Kaw riverbanks growing up, and thought he might study paleontology. At the University of Kansas, he developed a passion for snakes, especially the dangerous ones. "Herpers," James explains, are a weird breed: undisciplined, macho, uninterested in normal relationships. Other scientists view the ones who hunt poisonous reptiles with suspicion; they're less meticulous chroniclers of the natural world than cowboys spoiling for a fight. Slowinski looked like a washout, in spite of his brilliance, until he lucked into the CAS job. But his bad habits (or are they emotional defects?) follow him on his quest for fame and fortune, all the way to an isolated Burmese village named Rat Baw.
While James has his limitations as a chronicler of Slowinski's story (oh, what a Jon Krakauer or Bill Bryson could have done with the material), he makes a brilliant decision to frame the narrative with the krait bite. All the successes, disappointments, and unfulfilled promise of a career boil down to a man getting mouth-to-mouth respiration in a remote schoolhouse and hoping that the paralyzed world of September 11, 2001, can get a helicopter to him. It's a fascinating, bitter elegy for a man incapable of living within civilized precautions.