Unglamorous middle-class pastimes like spelling bees and Scrabble have gotten the non-fiction treatment lately, but bird-watching, the subject of Mark Obmascik's frenetic exposé The Big Year, turns out to be anything but middle-class. To pursue a "big year"a yearlong attempt to spot every native North American bird species, plus as many oddballs, rarities, and aliens as possibletakes big cash. Two of the three birders Obmascik follows during their 1998 big years are independently wealthy, able to afford subscriptions to rare-bird-sighting hotlines and last-minute airline tickets to remote locations. Sandy Komito, former industrial contractor, notorious cheapskate, and current holder of the big-year record of 721 species, is going for it again. Al Levantin, retired executive and Aspen resident, is unknown in the world of competitive birding, but he has the cash and has done the homework to catch Komito.
The third birder in The Big Year is Greg Miller, a computer programmer at a nuclear power plant working long hours to eliminate the Y2K bug. Miller is recently divorced, the proud owner of maxed-out credit cards and a four-figure bank account. He has to chase the wealthier men to places like Attu, off the coast of Alaska, to catch Asian species blown over the Bering strait by El Niño, and High Island, Texas, for "fallout" birds interrupted during their trans-Gulf migratory flights. Twice forced to ask his father (no captain of industry himself) for loans, Miller is a huge underdog in a contest with no prize.
Obmascik affects a you-are-there style of reportage without ever having been there; he assembled the story from interviews rather than spot observations. His breathless prose sometimes veers into stand-up comedy, and he uses the word "unit" (as in, "his wallet was a hurting unit") with disturbing frequency. But The Big Year reads like a house afire, with the thrill of the chase on every page, even in the fascinating mini-history of American birding he provides in the third chapter. It's an odd chase, to be sure, more of a statistic than a safari. The participants don't necessarily love birds; some do, but there's little time to enjoy the view while maintaining an average of two species a day.
Obmascik's book is short on nature, but it's long on man and obsession, and those fascinations drive most of the page-turners on the nonfiction bestseller list. Bird lovers should find his bibliography more interesting than his text, but anyone who's wanted to be the best at something, no matter how non-remunerative, ought to find The Big Year hard to put down.