When I was sixteen, I spent a month canoeing with a bunch of juvenile delinquents from New York. This was through a program called Outward Bound, which I had signed up for of my own volition. They, on the other hand, had been sent to the boundary waters of Minnesota by a judge who ordered “wilderness training” as an alternative to juvie jail.
My group of young criminals included a skinny dude with a peach-fuzz chin and lifeless eyes, a cruel rich boy and his toady sidekick, and a big shaggy guy who looked and sounded like Jack Nicholson. The four of them were horribly mean to me and the other two women, and when I wasn’t cowering from their bullying, I was plotting ways to get even. I began with the ole Parent Trap slather-honey-on-their-tent-and-hope-for-bears scenario, moved onto thoughts of poisonous mushroom pocket stew, and at a particular low point, fixated on the mental image of tent stakes driven through the skinny dude’s shark eyes.
Looking back, I’m sure they weren’t that bad. Maybe the crazy loons got to me. We were so isolated – four tents pitched under a black bowl of sky, with no one but each other – that when they ate all the peanut butter meant to last another week, it felt like an act of treachery.
This is why I can’t stop thinking about the recent news story involving a violent outbreak between two Russians living in a remote research station in Antarctica. How one man, Sergei, stabbed another, Oleg, in the chest with a butter knife. The stabbing took place at 3:00 pm in the research station’s canteen and it is the provocation for the attack that has completely grabbed me. Sergei stabbed Oleg not because Oleg ate the last of the peanut butter or stole Sergei’s penguin research but because Oleg kept giving away the endings of the books that Sergei was reading.
Oleg was airlifted to a hospital in Chile where he is in stable condition. Sergei is back in Russia now, in custody on charges of attempted murder. And here in Mequon, Wisconsin, I am obsessed with this crime.
My first attempt at googling more information revealed that Sergei and Oleg spent four years together in Antarctica. “Can you imagine how many books Oleg ruined?” I exclaimed to my son Walter. He spent last winter alone in a yurt with no one but J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin for company. “Oh yeah,” he said. “I’d easily cut someone open for that. But I’d cut out his tongue.”
My friend Alison called to talk about the election, and I was like, “Who cares. Let me ask you about chest wounds.” She’s an ICU nurse and painted a lurid picture of lacerations with dull knives: they cause more of a ripping than slicing. We agreed that given Oleg’s short stay in the ICU, the knife didn’t penetrate very far. “I bet he punctured a lung, though,” she assured me. Alison is an avid reader, and like me, didn’t foster much sympathy for a man she labeled a “book bully.”
I texted the story to my friend Jack because he wants to do research in Antarctica. He is such a sweet boy, I thought he deserved to be warned. “I promise I will never do this,” he messaged me. “No matter where you are, everyone hates a spoiler.”
“Write the screenplay,” I messaged back. “It’s ‘The Shining’ meets ‘The Odd Couple.’”
The woman at the gym who always works out in cute sweaters and jeans like she’s at the mall overheard me talking about it with my friend Josh. She disagreed that Oleg had it coming. “I don’t care if it was book bullying or Netflix cheating or yoga farting,” she said. “You don’t solve your problems with a butter knife.”
“Like she’s Judge Judy,” I whispered to Josh.
I asked my attorney husband how one would legally defend poor Sergei, figuring he would suggest temporary insanity. Instead, he described the form of self-defense called “necessity.” In the groundbreaking case, Regina v. Dudley & Stephens, a group of stranded sailors on a lifeboat killed and ate the cabin boy. This happened in 1884, by the way, and after being rescued, the sailors defended their actions by asserting that they didn’t want to eat the cabin boy — they had to.
Dudley & Stephens did not win acquittal — they were sentenced to hang. But their case did establish the legal principle of “necessity” in situations of such overwhelming emergency that a person must be allowed to respond by breaking the law.
Clearly, if Sergei was deep into “Jaws” and Oleg, that asshole, casually says, “Hey Sergei, you know that the shark hunter gets eaten,” then what we have here is certainly an overwhelming emergency. Sure, Oleg spoiled the suspense of man vs. nature. But more cruelly, he disrupted Sergei’s immersion in the town of Amity. It’s like he saw Sergei escaping the bleak monotony of Antarctica in a New England fishing boat and he torpedoed it.
Surely then, the Russian judge should take pity on Sergei. The severity of Oleg’s bullying justified the butter knife and perhaps the judge should sentence Sergei to hours of community service at the Moscow Public Library.
But if Oleg merely revealed the ending of “Gone, Girl” — that atrocity of a novel which I didn’t even bother to finish, then Sergei overreacted. In which case the judge should let him rot in a gulag with a bunch of New York juvies and the Boy Scout Manual.
Mithra’s Butter Knife Books
Here is my list of books that could warrant an attack if someone spoiled them. They are immersive. They have suspenseful plots that will keep you up late. And they have the kind of endings that will surprise you but will also make sense, which is the best kind of ending.
In the Woods by Tana French
The Eye of the Needle by Ken Follett
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
Atonement by Ian McEwan
The Round House by Louise Erdrich
The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
City of Thieves by David Benioff
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
The Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Goldsmith
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Safon
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer