Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Fishing, A River Runs Through It, and Montana Sawdust Piles

Whether you're at your local creek, floating the Yakima Canyon on a multi-day trip, or cruising the beaches of Liberty Bay for the Sea-Run Cutthroats that clogged our waters some 75 years ago, there are few times like Summer to break out the old fly rod and "wet your line." The goal, as ever, is 1) netting some sea-borne monster to show off to your friends and, 2) enjoying the outdoors. While we're late in the season, across nearly all of land West of the Mississippi (and probably some areas East of it, though who cares about them), late summer and early fall still comprise a glorious time of year for flyfishermen and flyfisherwomen to get outside and chase the dream. And here's a book to stoke the fires.

Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It (U. Chicago Press, 2001, $9.60) is one of those books that every flyfisher-person has read, heard too much about, or at the very worst, purposefully neglected with the mind that it's 'too mainstream'. In my estimation, it is a book that everyone should read (and maybe even especially those that have never heard of flyfishing, gearchucking, or the great outdoors). Made up of three short stories, "A River Runs Through It," "Logging and Pimping and 'Your pal, Jim," and "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky," the book is unerringly hilarious. The stories' titles convey that much, I think. In it, plaintive--and even beatific--descriptions of nature, fishing, Montana, etc. are regularly interrupted by crude sex jokes, cartoonish elaborations of early Montanans' drinking habits, and simmering jabs at Maclean's own Scottish Presbyterian church. One story captures this delightful mix of naturalism and humor particularly well: after nearly 60 pages of high drama in a Montana logging camp, the story degenerates into a joke about sex. Beautiful and tense throughout, we think this story has been schooling us in the ways of masculinity, the woods, and the mountains. In reality it's the distractingly long-winded build up of a joke about fat women. The irony is masterful and miraculous, as it is throughout the stories. And it serves to remind us that it's not Thoreau or Hemingway that we're reading; it's something completely new and completely different: a haunting book of jokes written by a Pulitzer prize winning University of Chicago professor who grew up drinking whiskey in Montana sawdust piles. It may or may not rekindle your passion to fish. But it will make you laugh. And it will definitely remind you of everything you're missing when you're inside watching reruns of How I Met Your Mother.