The Snow Leopard grew on me as it went on – or maybe just beat me into submission, sort of like the grueling South Asian mountain trek it describes.
But at the core I think Matthiessen makes the mistake of far too many writers – he thinks he’s fundamentally much more interesting than he actually is. Mercifully, after some early digressions into his boring drug-filled ’60s experiences and concomitant marital problems, he eventually focuses on the mountain environs and people who are part of his actual journey.
He’s an extraordinarily technically proficient writer – nary a misplaced word or jarring construction. But I don’t think the combination of naturalistic description and Buddhist spiritual quest ever quite gel. Points to him for not romanticizing the mountain wilderness – he frequently calls out the native people for thievery and lack of respect for each other, and is pitiless in his description of a landscape ravaged by overfarming.
In the end, this recounting of a mildly dangerous multi-week expedition to observe sheep in their natural habitat (I’m getting bored just typing that) just isn’t very interesting. The reader gets into a rhythm like those of the travelers, but ultimately not much is actually accomplished or learned, either by the participants or the reader.
The Snow Leopard is a semi-classic of travelogue as spiritual discovery, but I think its time has passed. Eminently missable.