The Dinosaur Artist by Paige Williams, Review: Prehistoric fascinations

The Dinosaur Artist… obsession, betrayal, and the quest for Earth’s ultimate trophy. New Yorker magazine staff writer Paige Williams delves into the surprisingly perilous world of fossil collectors in this fascinating true tale. Read on for our full review.

The Dinosaur Artist Synopsis:

Paige Williams The Dinosaur ArtistIn 2012, a New York auction catalogue boasted an unusual offering: ‘a superb Tyrannosaurus skeleton’. In fact, Lot 49135 consisted of a nearly complete T. bataar — a close cousin to the more-famous T. rex — that had been unearthed in Mongolia. At 2.4 metres high and 7.3 metres long, the specimen was spectacular, and the winning bid was over $1 million.

Eric Prokopi, a 38-year-old Floridian, had brought this extraordinary skeleton to market. A one-time swimmer who’d spent his teenage years diving for shark teeth, Prokopi’s singular obsession with fossils fuelled a thriving business, hunting for, preparing, and selling specimens to clients ranging from natural-history museums to avid private collectors like Leonardo DiCaprio.

But had Prokopi gone too far this time? As the T. bataar went to auction, a network of paleontologists alerted the government of Mongolia to the eye-catching lot. An international custody battle ensued, with Prokopi watching as his own world unravelled.

The Dinosaur Artist is a stunning work of narrative journalism about humans’ relationship with natural history, and about a seemingly intractable conflict between science and commerce. A story that stretches from Florida’s Land O’ Lakes to the Gobi Desert, The Dinosaur Artist illuminates the history of fossil collecting — a murky, sometimes risky business, populated by eccentrics and obsessives, where the lines between poacher and hunter, collector and smuggler, and enthusiast and opportunist can easily blur.

(Scribe Publications, 2018)

Genre: Non-Fiction, Adventure, Drama, Historical

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I read very little non-fiction, but the combination of ingredients in this synopsis drew me in, particularly the many eccentric characters it would involve.

The Dinosaur Artist in paperback is a daunting item in itself — 410 pages of what is by recent publishing norms, uncommonly small font. That said, the main narrative only extends 278 pages, with Acknowledgements, Bibliography, and detailed Notes and Index sections making up the remainder. The breadth and depth of investigative research undertaken by Williams is truly something to be admired, as is her ambition for the scope of this book, explained upfront in the Author’s Note:

The title Dinosaur Artist is not intended to refer exclusively to a leading subject of this book, Eric Prokopi, but rather also to dinosaurs’ unparalleled power to remain culturally, scientifically, and aesthetically relevant despite extinction, and to the long, crucial intersection between science and art.

A lofty goal, but Williams had unearthed a wealth of fascinating examples to draw upon, with so many competing interests/motives and zealous personalities at play. No matter the element of the complex puzzle being introduced, she has taken considerable care in setting the scene and context, whether political, historical or environmental. It is in these moments, that some of her most accomplished writing is on display.

Florida’s first state preserve is one of those places that, when you get out of the car, just sounds hot. Visitors may see a long-headed toothpick (grasshopper), a scarlet skimmer (dragonfly), pirate perch (fish), and a canopy so thick, snakes stretch between treetops. Brightly striped banana spiders the size of a human hand weave golden webs as big as badminton nets, their spindly legs working like the fingers of an elegant old woman tapping ashes from her French cigarette.

The sheer number of characters and linkages introduced (incl. multi-generational backstories and historical context) felt unwieldy at times though. For example, the level of detail concerning Mongolian political evolution far exceeded its contextual requirement. While indeed highly informative and very well explained, this focus on politics diverted attention and pace/tension, from a leading storyline. Not all tangents explored yielded the reader payoff I’d expected.

Paige William’s The Dinosaur Artist is a fascinating, educational read that I’d recommend to those with a taste for investigative journalism undertaken by fine brush rather than spade.

BOOK RATING: The Story 3 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5  — Overall 3.5

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About the Author, Paige Williams

Paige Williams is a staff writer at The New Yorker and a Mississippi native. A National Magazine Award winner for feature writing, she has had her journalism anthologized in various volumes of the Best American series, including The Best American Magazine Writing and The Best American Crime Writing. She is the Laventhol/Newsday Visiting Professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and has taught at schools including the University of Mississippi, New York University, the Missouri School of Journalism, and, at M.I.T., in the Knight Science Journalism program. Williams has been a fellow of The MacDowell Colony and was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. At The New Yorker, she has written about suburban politics in Detroit, the death penalty in Alabama, paleoanthropology in South Africa, and the theft of cultural palimony from the Tlingit peoples of Alaska.

This review counts towards my participation in the 2018 New Release Challenge.

* My receiving a copy of The Dinosaur Artist from the publisher for review purposes did not impact the expression of my honest opinions in the review above.