Jonathan Safran Foer’s novels are dense, energetic, concerned with all things moral and Jewish, pleased with themselves, sentimental, and too wordy for a lot of us. They are like wild Russian dances that leave you breathless and wondering why you stayed on the dance floor. Without argument, he is enormously talented and passionate, but his writing and gimmicks can get in the way of the material.
His first nonfiction book, Eating Animals, is both everything good and annoying about Foer’s fiction. It’s bursting with passion, facts, insight, sentimentality, overwrought pleas, and a deep conviction that it’s an important book. I underlined many gushy descriptions and self-righteous passages, but an equal number of times I was blown away.
I do not mean by this that I enjoyed the book. This is an exposé on the industrial factory farms that provide America with 99 percent of its meat and chicken, the barbarity of high-speed industrial slaughter, and the disgusting and unhealthy nature of factory-farmed meat—an argument for why no decent person, especially an environmentalist, should eat meat with a good conscience. Foer writes, “We know that if someone offers to show us a film on how our meat is produced, it would be a horror film.” He gives truly sickening descriptions of the suffering of factory-farmed animals, plus studies that prove eating meat is a dangerous risk to health. Oh, and he throws in childhood memories and mini-essays on seahorses and kosher foods.
Eating Animals makes a solid case for the absolute devastation meat production levels on the environment, and it’s a polemic for vegetarianism, undertaken by Foer when he became a father and faced deciding for his son whether they could eat the animals of their favorite nighttime stories and songs. It’s a weave of short chapters about his family, the earth, firsthand accounts of breaking into a factory chicken farm in the middle of the night, interviews with factory and family farmers, animal-rights people, slaughterers, scientists and experts on food-borne illness.
Many readers will find this book a serious buzz kill. I cannot think of a single friend to whom I might recommend it, even though they are all tenderhearted souls, passionate about the environment. They are also food lovers, and mostly great cooks, and they love their animal protein. Even so, the book is riveting, addictive, heartfelt and fair, with surprising humor. Sometimes it sounds like a screed, but so did Rachel Carson’s warnings to many people, and Al Gore’s. One has to earnestly care about saving the earth, whether or not one is moved by the suffering of, say, turkey chicks.
When I told my priest friend about the chicks, he said, “Who cares?” Then he headed out the door to Ikea for a platter of Swedish meatballs.The detailed suffering of those chicks is child’s play compared to Foer’s descriptions of cattle-kill floors or factory chicken barracks. Here’s a sentence about USDA chicken inspectors who each examine about 25,000 birds a day: “Every week, millions of chickens leaking yellow pus, stained by green feces, contaminated by harmful bacteria, or marred by lung and heart infections, cancerous tumors, or skin conditions are shipped for sale to consumers.”
This is not appetizing prose. And I am not even going to go into the so-called “fecal soup,” in which 99 percent of US poultry producers soak their dead chickens, described a few paragraphs later. The point is, you may not even want to finish this review—yet I am urging you to read all 352 pages of the book, for any number of reasons.
My priest friend called me after lunch from Ikea.
“How was your plate of steaming ebola E-coli baby-calf meatballs?” I asked nicely.
“Yum, yum,” he enthused. “Look. This is a totally private decision. Jesus ate Passover lamb every year, and barbecued ribs every chance he got. I care about HIV/AIDS, the polar bears, and poverty. But not about meat.”
That’s his opinion. But Foer made me see how important our questions are. He published this book for the best possible reason: Like all honest writers, he wrote it because he couldn’t not write it. And I’m glad he did.