K, so you're at a Mardi Gras parade, you've had a few beers, and suddenly it doesn't seem so unthinkable for you to become a part-time flambeau carrier. You grab the next carrier who passes by, offer him 20 bucks for the honor, and your employment aspirations are fulfilled. Uh-oh, those few beers are catching up with you, your sense of equilibrium is failing, and you crash and create a human pyrotechnical display. Not only have you bought the farm, but quite possibly you've become the newest winner of a Darwin Award.
Wendy Northcutt's current best-selling book The Darwin Awards is a testament to "individuals who ensure the long-term survival of our species by removing themselves from the gene pool in a sublimely idiotic fashion." It's a collection of all sorts of grave human errors and examples of what not to do with your pet snake. For instance, there's the man who kept his loaded Smith & Wesson .38 Special on the nightstand next to the phone. The phone rang, and instead of picking it up, he answered destiny's call. What about the three Cambodian friends, who decided to play a bizarre drinking game of landmine roulette, or a couple naked in the throes of passion inside a small Italian sports car doing 80 miles per hour? Award-winners all, as are these snake charmers: a man bitten by a cobra who refused to go to a hospital and instead went to a local bar to drink and brag, and the guy who let his 12-foot python roam free in his house, neglected to feed it, and then was mistaken by his pet for a large chicken.
And just in case you think New Orleans doesn't have its share of winners, there is the sad story of the cancer ward patient who set himself on fire by lighting a cigarette while on oxygen.
Northcutt started the Darwin awards on a Stanford University web server in 1994. Due to its rapid popularity, it was given its own site and www.DarwinAwards.com was born. The site is still hugely popular and is a repository for award winners, honorable mentions (injured but still able to procreate), and urban legends, as well as a philosophy forum in which daily nominees are debated by the site's members.
The book is a spin-off of the site, and it shows. Some of the accounts are genuinely funny, particularly when a perpetrator receives his just reward. (Witness the terrorist who opens his returned letter bomb.) But many are sad commentaries on the human condition, supported by smug, poorly written editorials. That's the result of the award's origins and Northcutt's selection process.
Part of the allure of the Internet and Web sites like www.DarwinAwards.com is the supposed anonymity and the ability to speak one's mind without fear of censorship or reprisal. Of course, freedom of speech is one of the cornerstones of our country, but when it's tied into anonymity, it can become somewhat outlandish in its scope simply because no one is responsible for it. For instance, the individual, who goes by the name Sidecar, defending the nomination of JFK Jr.'s fatal crash for an award. He has the right to speak his mind about any topic and be anonymous, but how much is he really vested in the opinion if he won't sign his name to it? Remember, this is not Thomas Paine's Common Sense or, even, Anonymous' Primary Colors. These are quick and odd little stories that appear daily in our email accounts.
A Darwin Award type of story might appear in your email with a note of, "look at what this idiot did." Maybe you laugh, maybe you don't, but it's not something you reflect upon for very long. You either delete it, or possibly send it to 20-30 of your closest acquaintances. You didn't write it, you're just forwarding it. Northcutt approached her selection and editing process with similar detachment. She writes: "I am usually successful at walking the fine line between humor and horror. If you find I have erred, please turn the page and enjoy the next selection." So, if you find the story about the retired farmer falling through the ice into his own grave sad and depressing, move on. If the entire chapter, "Man's Favorite Toy: Penis Envy," makes you gasp, cringe and cross your legs, forget about it and check out the next chapter. Northcutt didn't create these stories -- she's just presenting them.
Ultimately, that's the problem with The Darwin Awards. It's simply a collection of email stories -- some worth a glance, and some not. It's a coffee table book, intended to be read in small bites. But it isn't fit enough to survive more than a cursory read.