Susan Orlean’s 1998 book The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession showed up in Allison Hoover Bartlett’s The Man Who Loved Books Too Much as one of that author’s favorite narrative non-fiction works, so I grabbed a used copy as soon as I came across one. “Narrative” is only loosely applicable to Orlean’s work, which violates one of my main rules on non-fiction works – unless the author is the subject, the author shouldn’t appear in the book much, if at all – but The Orchid Thief mostly succeeds in spite of Orlean’s heavy presence on the pages because her twin subjects, orchids and the wackadoos who collect them obsessively, are so fascinating. The book was adapted, loosely, by Charlie Kaufman for his script for Adaptation., which is more about Kaufman’s difficulty adapting the book for the big screen than it is about the story in the book itself.
The thief of the book’s title is John Laroche, who was arrested in 1994 while working for the Seminole Nation in Florida as a horticulturalist who wanted to build a nursery and lab that could clone rare orchids, creating a sustainable revenue source for the tribe while feeding Laroche’s own mad obsession with the flowers. Laroche hoped to exploit a loophole in federal laws on taking endangered plants from federally-protected lands by employing Seminole tribe members to take these rare orchids from lands technically under the Seminole Nation’s control, a legal inconsistency that opens up into an ethical quandary over adminstration of lands under Native American control, which Orlean unfortunately chooses not to address. Instead, she follows the crazy people in the orchid world, each one more eccentric than the last, while also explaining the botany of orchids and why people from so many walks of life become so obsessed with them.
Laroche has much in common with Bartlett’s own anti-hero, the book thief John Gilkey, between the psychology behind his madness and his ability to rationalize actions that are immoral and often illegal. Laroche isn’t quite the unrepentant thief that Gilkey is, as the latter merely deluded himself into believing that it was right for him to steal rare books because he couldn’t afford them, whereas Laroche had concocted a broader environmentalist rationalization that by exploiting the loophole, he’d force the government to close it, all while making money for the Seminole Nation and himself. Orlean describes Laroche as rakish and charming, even as good-looking, but on the printed page he comes off as erratic, self-centered, and exasperating. I couldn’t imagine being friends with this man, so it’s hard to see him as an object of desire for women – and there’s no evidence beyond Orlean’s own descriptions to indicate that he is one.
The strongest characters in The Orchid Thief aren’t the collectors or dealers, however, but the flowers themselves. Orchids – technically plants in the family Orchidaceae, which includes over 20,000 species and over 100,000 hybrids, according to Wikipedia – are tough to grow, requiring seven years from seed to bloom; bloom only for very short periods, as little as a single day per year; and depend on complicated relationships with other species to propagate, which has led, through natural selection, to unusual colors and shapes in the flowers designed to attract and/or trap birds or insects, allowing for the spread of an orchid’s pollen. Wild orchids also require the presence of specific fungi to provide sufficient carbon for the seeds to germinate properly, a symbiotic relationship that Orlean doesn’t mention in an otherwise lengthy discussion about just how rare orchids are. The orchids that Laroche wanted to steal grow in the forbidding Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve in Florida, a low-lying swampy expanse that is very difficult to access or navigate, but that forms the largest known home for the rare dendrophylax lindenii, also known as the ghost orchid, which Orlean becomes mildly obsessed with sighting in the wild while writing the book. (Orlean does provide an entertaining diversion on Florida land scams in the same area, where operators sold useless parcels of swampland to gullible cold-weather inhabitants.)
By the end of The Orchid Thief, the Seminole nation has fired Laroche and hired a less ambitious, more practical horticulturalist to run their nursery, while Laroche swears off orchids forever, leaving Orlean scrambling a little for a resolution to her book that doesn’t read like Acheron Hades just went into the original and erased the final dozen pages. The final chapter, which covers her trip into the Fakahatchee with a park ranger to try to spot a ghost orchid, would stand alone very well as a magazine feature, but its tenuous connection to the remainder of the book is a major reason why I wouldn’t call this a narrative work. It’s more of a broad study of interconnected stories around a single, compelling subject, one that touches on themes from morality to biology to beauty and madness, with a nonlinear and thus non-narrative structure that works because Orlean’s language is strong and clean.