Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream

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Little a
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5.7 X 1.2 X 8.4 inches | 0.95 pounds

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About the Author

Carson Vaughan is a freelance journalist from Nebraska who writes frequently about the Great Plains. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Paris Review Daily, Outside, Pacific Standard, Slate, the Atlantic, VICE, In These Times, and more. Zoo Nebraska is his first book.


A Book Riot Best of the Year for Nonfiction.

"In this easily digestible portrait of small-town life, Vaughan compassionately and understatedly traces the evolution of one man's grand vision and the petty politics that destroyed it. A thoughtful meditation that will appeal to animal lovers and readers interested in tales of small communities coming together." --Kirkus Reviews

"Journalist Vaughan skillfully narrates a resonant, at times heart-wrenching tale of small-town Americana...What could have been rote reporting in lesser hands springs to life as Vaughan dramatically revisits that grim day and the series of bad decisions that led up to it, giving a white-knuckle retelling of the rampage and the sad, even cruel, aftermath...Vaughan's nuanced, poignant storytelling provides a sobering take on what happens when the best intentions go awry." --Publishers Weekly

"Vaughn takes into account the ways small-town politics and shifting loyalties color decisions. He deftly blends this with Haskins's outsized vision, and how animal welfare is precariously balanced between competing interests. A fascinating small-town drama results in a heartrending read." --Booklist

"The author's even-handed treatment of the story lifts it from the clichéd rut into which it might have fallen. Vaughan, like the best of nonfiction writers, realizes the importance of defining his characters' behavioral motivations...This book deserves national attention and will certainly resonate with any reader who has driven the byways of rural Nebraska." --Lincoln Journal Star

"The Nebraska journalist Carson Vaughan's first book is more than a colorful piece of Americana. Zoo Nebraska reveals the struggle for survival--economic, political, even physical--that goes on behind the stoic faces of many small Midwestern towns. The story is familiar: poverty, population drain, the takeover of big agriculture, and hotly contested attempts to jumpstart tourism and other small industries in its wake. But the forms it takes are as unlikely and varied as the residents of Zoo Nebraska." --The New Criterion

"The story encompasses themes that anyone, regardless of their hometown, can relate to by centering on a dream gone disturbingly awry. And it's resonated with people both familiar and new to the story...Zoo Nebraska is at once a hyperlocal yet ageless tale of humanity." --Norfolk Daily News

"Vaughan dissects what happened when the chimps broke out of the zoo and local law enforcement was called into action. The result is a bizarre, evocative, and moving snapshot of a time and place in recent, highly idiosyncratic Americana." --CrimeReads

"Carson Vaughan...delivers Zoo Nebraska, a riveting but depressing yarn of good intentions gone bad...Vaughan...tells the story well. More subtly, he takes care not to wear down the contradictions in his informants' stories or the contrasts in their points of view." --Wilmington Star News

"The story of that awful and ridiculous September day in 2005 is vividly told in Zoo Nebraska: The Dismantling of an American Dream. Nebraska native Carson Vaughan...picked up the story in college and spent a decade interviewing more than one hundred people tied to the horrific events, trying to figure out what the hell went wrong in the heartland." --New York Magazine, Intelligencer

"We need more books about the life of small towns in rural America. The story of the chimp escape and the aftermath in Zoo Nebraska is undoubtedly horrifying. But the path for how Zoo Nebraska came to life is inspiring...Anyone interested in chimps, zoos, and small-town life will enjoy reading Zoo Nebraska." --Inside Higher Ed

"Carson Vaughan's Zoo Nebraska tells the true story of Royal's zoo, with its unlikely rise and untimely demise. The bizarre subject material, fodder for schlock in the hands of a lesser writer, is rendered in blisteringly researched, ardently literary prose. As the careful plotting propels readers through the two-decade collapse of one man's dream, it's easy to forget that this is nonfiction, and difficult to comprehend the feat of reportage that it required." --Los Angeles Review of Books

"In the midst of the carnage, a shining example of the American dream withered away. Journalist Carson Vaughan elegantly retells this bizarre and poignant tale." --Monocle

"A marvelous, meaningful book, full of deep reporting, fine writing, and big questions about the nature of community, of living with animals, of challenging values. Zoo Nebraska will surprise and engage you and make you think." --Susan Orlean, author of New York Times bestsellers The Library Book and The Orchid Thief

"Zoo Nebraska is the kind of delightfully unexpected book that comes along once in a blue moon. The subject, the bittersweet and hilarious collapse of a once-charming zoo in a once-charming Midwest town, is as unlikely as it is wonderful. The chimpanzees run wild, and away we go. Carson Vaughan writes with eloquent meticulousness. He has a novelist's eye. The overall impact is stunning." --Buzz Bissinger, author of Father's Day and New York Times bestseller Friday Night Lights

"Reading like a sustained segment of This American Life, in a tone at once dryly comic and doleful, this account of bizarre events in northeastern Nebraska paints a portrait of the entire region and suggests a metaphor for mankind in general. Well observed and crisply written." --Alexander Payne, Academy Award-winning director of Nebraska and The Descendants

"Zoo Nebraska is Great Plains Gothic, Fargo meets S-Town meets Alexander Payne, a riveting tale of quixotic hopes and dreams and bad blood, all of it carefully, knowingly, sympathetically told." --Kurt Andersen, author of New York Times bestsellers Fantasyland and Heyday and host of Studio 360

"If there were such a thing as a dream anthropologist, you'd find Carson Vaughan at the top of the profession, helping us understand how some dreams become traps--become cages--and how sometimes when a dream dies, it kills everything around it. I truly feel that Vaughan's chronicle of Royal, Nebraska, and its heartbreaking zoo is an Americana masterpiece." --Bob Shacochis, author of Kingdoms in the Air

"Dick Haskin's dream of starting a primate research center in his tiny hometown in Nebraska is the kind of crazy notion that would be easy to mock or deride, especially when everything spins absurdly and tragically out of control. But Carson Vaughan recognizes something deeper. With Willa Cather's eye for the countryside and the Coen brothers' ear for dialogue, Vaughan reveals Haskin's story for what it really is: a strange, ineffable, and heartbreaking emblem of what it means to live in--and feel circumscribed by--the narrow bounds of a dying town. This amazing book of good intentions and bad outcomes reminds us that no place is too small for big ideas or devastating consequences." --Ted Genoways, James Beard Award-winning author of This Blessed Earth: A Year in the Life of an American Family Farm

"In the finest John McPhee tradition, Carson Vaughan has picked his spot on the map; described its surface in careful, evocative detail; and then drilled deep, revealing the dreams, ambitions, frustrations, and failures of the citizens of Royal, Nebraska, who hoped to put their town on the map by opening a zoo. The product of meticulous research and reporting, Zoo Nebraska has a narrative drive and a collection of complex characters that few books, fiction or nonfiction, can match. It's a remarkable achievement." --Larry Watson, author of As Good as Gone and Montana 1984

"With the deft touch of a novelist, Carson Vaughan brilliantly weaves an intricate, intimate, in-depth look into the heart and soul of a small Nebraska village. But along the way--from a tapestry of mischievous characters, memorable scenes, and machine-gun dialogue--he illuminates a much larger landscape chockablock with haunting questions: Can you ever know who you are if you don't understand where you are? What happens if you lose the ability to dream? And in the end, what does it mean to be human? So read this real-life story carefully. Think about it lovingly. Handle it gently. Because this is a gem." --Joe Starita, author of A Warrior of the People and I Am a Man

"There is a movie here, in this thrilling, crisply reported, and altogether wonderful book, but despite the chimps romping around and terrorizing a tiny Nebraska town, it isn't Planet of the Apes. No, Zoo Nebraska would ideally be codirected by Werner Herzog and John Ford as a story of obsession and folly leading to tragedy while at the same time leaving its characters, who seem as integral to the place as the dusty winds that blow through it, with their dignity intact. Carson Vaughan, like a young Truman Capote, takes us into the points of view of a multitude of characters who, like the roadside zoo at the book's center, provide a menagerie of strangeness and possibility;but despite the temptation to caricature, he inhabits these people so fully and honestly on the page that he brings them and their story fully alive." --David Gessner, New York Times bestselling author of All the Wild That Remains

"Here is a real-life small-town drama, literary journalism that reads like a novel--heartbreak, dreams, bad luck, loss on a 'local level, ' where pain can be seen and heard. It's also sometimes very funny. Zoo Nebraska resides in the bull's-eye of good literature: it's about heart, soul, and grit--all made tactile. Vaughan, just out of the chute with his first book, has hit his stride already. This book will keep you up way past bedtime--reading to find out what could possibly come next, and next, and finally next. And if you were lucky enough to be raised in a small town, you will ever so clearly recognize lives, events, hopes, and fears that are so eloquently opened to you." --Clyde Edgerton, author of The Floatplane Notebooks and Walking Across Egypt

"This wild, beautiful book is so inventive and genuine, full of insight into life on this earth and particularly in the teeming microcosm of Zoo Nebraska. Who could guess that what happened here could so thoroughly and strangely explain our times?" --Rebecca Lee, author of Bobcat and Other Stories

"Vaughan catapults into the sphere of my favorite writers by rooting out and unfurling this nearly lost but epic story of an American back road. This book howls to life and delivers a tale of people and critters like none I've ever heard. I was instantly lost in the fascinating story of an eccentric achievement and its violent, then slow grind into obsolescence. A brilliant writer and researcher, Vaughan dazzles when he turns all his talents to his home state, which in his hands, is flyover country no more." --Devin Murphy, national bestselling author of The Boat Runner and Tiny Americans

"From the very first sentences, this story grips you with such rich detail and passion for place and character that you won't be able to put it down. Writing in the tradition of investigative work such as Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, Carson Vaughan explores the tale of a small zoo in Royal, Nebraska, and the well-intentioned people whose untenable dreams are lost at great expense to the lives around them. Beginning with the calls to police, the story brings us into obsessions that drive the human heart beyond the boundaries of reason, leading to the inevitable tragedy that follows. This is a book not only for animal lovers but also for readers who want to experience the many corners of worlds we build through sheer will and imagination, the kind of private dreaming that is a hallmark of our culture." --Jonis Agee, author of The Bones of Paradise

"Carson Vaughan's Zoo Nebraska is the real-life story of a struggling zoo improbably located in the dwindling farm town of Royal, Nebraska, population eighty-one. But it is also the tale of a hapless would-be primatologist, four doomed chimpanzees, and the fractious and eccentric community that both supports and destroys them--a narrative of obsession, yearning, and human frailty worthy of Melville and his white whale. By turns sweet, sad, funny, and tragic, Zoo Nebraska digs deep into what makes us human--and why we can't stop making monkeys of ourselves." --Robert Anthony Siegel, author of Criminals: My Family's Life on Both Sides of the Law

"A vivid evocation of a place and its people, Zoo Nebraska traces the rise and fall of a small zoo--concluding with the gripping narrative of the desperate efforts to capture escaped chimpanzees and the aftermath of that event. Carson Vaughan has written a fascinating tale from beginning to end." --John Biguenet, author of The Torturer's Apprentice and Silence

"In Zoo Nebraska, Carson Vaughan traces the beauty and terror of one man's dream to create a haven for exotic animals amid the fossil beds and farmland of rural Nebraska. What follows is an epic of small-town America, an all-too-human story where the dreams of men run wild of their aims and unlikely beasts break loose on city streets. Like Cather, Vaughan has an eye for the grace and folly of the pioneer heart against the vast, stern beauty of the American plains." --Taylor Brown, author of Gods of Howl Mountain