January 3, 1999

Flower Power

The Orchid Thief
By Susan Orlean, New York: Random House

Given a stack of 30 long features from the nation’s magazines,a reader could quickly find the one written by Susan Orlean. It would have a narrow focus: the routine of a 10-year-old boy in New Jersey; Saturday night with a lounge band in Portland, Ore.; a grocery store in Queens. It would be stylishly written, whimsical yet sophisticated, quirkily detailed and full of empathy for a person you might not have thought about empathetically before—might not have thought about at all. It would be lightly first person, with the few things Orlean revealed about herself things you were probably glad to know, and yet the whole would feel somehow suffused with her personality.

“The Orchid Thief” grew out of an article like those, for The New Yorker. It is Orlean’s first book-length narrative (after two collections, the first one short pieces about New England, the second portraits of Americans celebrating Saturday night). It shows her gifts in full bloom, as well as the challenges, even for such a talented journalist, of writing at this length.

The thief of the title is John Laroche, “skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact that he is missing all his front teeth.” Orlean had noticed a short article about him in a local paper. Laroche, along with three Seminole assistants, had been caught as they emerged from southern Florida’s Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve, a vast swamp, carrying four pillowcases containing more than 200 rare orchids and bromeliads. He planned to clone them by the millions, he explained to the arresting officers, and then sell them to collectors around the world.

As he awaited trial, Orlean decided to hang out with Laroche and learn about him and his world. With her picaresque hero as guide, she is led into the strange society-in-miniature of orchid collectors and propagators. This sort of place is exactly where Orlean likes to be, and soon her terrarium is filled with orchid maniacs like Laroche’s pal Dewey Fisk, whose business, the Philodendron Phreaque, is run out of his house on “one of those old Florida roads with rain ruts and grassy edges, and rows of one-floor bungalows with screened porches and dead cars and dead bicycles and dead appliances lying out in the open to molder, the way the Seminoles lay out their dead.” And then there is the orchid breeder Martin Motes, a former English professor who misquotes Shakespeare to his customers. And the swells at Miami’s American Orchid Society gala, where Orlean leans against the wall with the black-tied, orchid-loving Earl of Mansfield (”His wife had impressed me in the receiving line because she was so pretty and her hands felt like baby powder”).

Laroche is not a gala benefit type of guy, and he vanishes during this and other long stretches of the book. This is not all bad, because though Orlean is marvelous at describing her wing nut and his esthetic and moral world, there is not nearly enough of him to fill a book. Orlean appears to know this and digresses in long passages into several areas suggested by Laroche and his passion. We learn about the birth of orchid collecting in Victorian England and the exploits of agents sent by aristocrats to acquire specimens in faraway lands; about the Seminole Indians (Laroche was starting a nursery business for them at the time he was caught); about the sometimes fierce rivalries among Miami-area orchid dealers; and about orchid crimes, the largest of which was perhaps a classic Florida land scam that drained large pieces of the Fakahatchee for nothing.

No narrative really unites these passages, and several, like the Fakahatchee itself, through which Orlean slogs on three occasions (once with two convicts on work release), are slow going. What emerges finally as the book’s true subject is the monomania of collectors. As Orlean meets and sizes up a cast of characters that is downright English in its eccentricity, she comments: “It seemed as if there were hundreds and hundreds of people who were wrapped up in their special passion for the natural world. I still considered Laroche and his schemes exceptional—actually, something beyond exceptional—but he had started to seem more like the end point in a continuum. He was the oddball ultimate of those people who are enthralled by nonhuman living things and who pursue them like lovers.”

Orlean envies them this passion, this organizing principle for life, without sharing it—early on she professes to own not a single plant. Still, she comes to appreciate orchids as you feel a fancier must (and describes one as only she could): “He reached for a pot that held the cutest plant in the world. . . . I thought I might die if I couldn’t have this one. The background of the petal was the beigey yellow of a legal pad, and over the yellow background was a spray of hot pink pinpoint dots, and the flower was attached to the plant by a stem that was twisted like a stick of licorice. The petals were plump and supple and pleasant to touch. The center of the flower looked like the face of a piglet. I felt as if the plant was looking at me as much as I was looking at it.”

She even appreciates her roguish hero as only a mother might, appearing to forgive him when he returns to her story at the end only to let the air out of it: slapped on the hand by the judge and dropped by the Seminoles, Laroche renounces not only orchids but indeed plants of any kind. His new love: Web-page design and pornography publishing. Orlean puzzles over “how someone could end such intense desire without leaving a trace.” But she concludes that it’s all in character—Laroche’s earlier infatuations with ice age fossils, turtles and antique mirrors also ended abruptly. He does not even know the phone number of his ex-wife.

It’s unfortunate for the book that Laroche ends up looking like a flake, because the collecting mania that Orlean has so painstakingly described is, like the orchid, a small thing of grandeur, a passion with a pedigree. Serious collectors wait seven years just to see a new plant bloom, and Laroche, lacking constancy, is not in their league. It is despite her thief, and not because of him, that Orlean succeeds in revealing the grandeur of a miniature.