’The Gopher King’ a weird, engrossing tale embedded with references only longtime locals will understand
Stan Przewalski’s mind is as hard to describe as his last name is to pronounce. The term “PTSD” falls far, far short of his twisted reality, whatever that is.
Przewalski’s tale of madness, wildfire, wildlife and, ultimately, redemption is captured in “The Gopher King,” a novel by Gojan “Nick” Nikolich.
Nikolich, and his wife, Leslie, for about a decade owned the Eagle Valley Enterprise, and sold the paper in 1997 or so. The couple now lives in the Denver area.
If you lived in the western Eagle Valley during those years — and dammit, it was most assuredly the “Eagle Valley,” not the “Vail Valley” back then — you may have seen, and puzzled over, Nikolich’s weekly editorials. Those pieces frequently featured Nikolich’s fever-dream tales of the Gopher King.
I worked at the Enterprise for a time during the Nikoliches’ ownership, and more than once was asked, “What the hell’s the deal with Nick and those gophers?”
All these years later, those wacky columns — which often had none-too-veiled references to Eagle’s leadership and the prospect that the proposed, and never realized, Adam’s Rib ski area and resort might one day become real.
“The Gopher King” is more than just a reprise of those weekly flights of strangeness, though. In fact, Chaz, the Gopher King doesn’t appear until Chapter 9.
By then, we’ve been introduced to Przewalski and much of the human cast of the book: A local rancher, several people around the Eagle-ish town of Bull River Falls and the routine that goes into the weekly publication of the Bull River Falls Beacon-News, the town’s newspaper.
The first chapters bring us a murder, a wildfire, an under-construction resort that’s divided the town. We also meet an old-time rancher, Dora McCoy, who’s struggling to keep her property that’s adjacent to the Gold Gulch resort.
We also get the first glimpse into Vietnam veteran Przewalski’s drug-addled struggle with reality.
The story jumps from Bull River Falls to Przewalski’s long reveal of his combat experience and how it so deeply wounded soul to his beyond-odd adventures with Chaz, his gopher subjects and how they became the most heavily-armed and gaudily-consumerist rodents on the planet.
Nikolich writes with a journalist’s eye for detail and novelist’s knack for spinning a tale interspersed with occasional wisdom, as when Chaz, watching a video on how to filet a striped lake perch, quips, “Everthing is worth knowing for at least ten minutes. After that it’s best to forget what you learned.”
It’s an engrossing read, which culminates with Przewalski’s redemption in the heart of a fast-moving wildfire. Those chapters, filled with deep detail on fire behavior firefighting wrapped into they story’s climax, bring home everything that’s come before.
“The Gopher King” will appeal to longtime locals, but the story deserves a broader audience. By turns intense, disturbing and laugh-out-loud funny, “The Gopher King” might leave you a little shell-shocked, but in a good way.
The Gopher King
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