It’s a testament to Susan Orlean that she can make any subject seem interesting, but she didn’t have to work that hard with John Laroche. He’s the spiritual predecessor of Joe Exotic, a toothless obsessive known for big-picture ideas improperly realized who, with members of the Florida Seminole tribe, was arrested for taking bromeliads and orchids out of protected land in the Everglades to create a greenhouse business as a moneymaker for the natives. His main objective is to cultivate the Ghost Orchid, an orchid particularly sought for its rarity and difficult propagation, and sell them commercially.
Laroche is straight out of What About Bob?, the type of character you’re equally happy to read about and not to have to meet. Orlean’s frustration with her guide is palpable even through her journalistic impartiality; meetings frequently happen with meandering detours to Laroche’s associates “five minutes away” that end up taking hours. And (spoiler alert?) his promise to take Orlean to a Ghost Orchid in bloom proves fruitless when they end up lost in swampland.
This book is obviously more New Yorker than Jerry Springer, so it’s like decaf Tiger King, but watching the first episode of the docuseries on Netflix, I had a nagging “why does this seem so familiar” feeling until I realized I had basically read this in book form with less ostentation. If Joe Exotic is a caricature, Laroche is the actual photo.
The writing is beautiful, and I found myself googling plants named throughout the book; Orlean has compassion for each of the satellite personalities in her tale and devotes quite a bit of the book to establishing the world of plant collectors (the book is really about obsessives and how they congregate more than Laroche himself). As Orlean herself concludes: “I never thought very many people in the world were very much like John Laroche, but I realized more and more that he was only an extreme, not an aberration — that most people in some way or another do strive for something exceptional, something to pursue, even at their peril, rather than abide an ordinary life.”