Thursday, April 26, 2012

The River Why

"The River Why" by David James Duncan (Sierra Club Books, 291pp., 1983)

David Duncan is a good writer.  He had me hooked on P.17 with his pledge of affection for water.  "From the beginning my heart and mind were so taken up with the liquid element that nearly every other thing on the earth's bulbous face struck me as irrelevant, distracting, a waste of my time."  I found in those lines a man I could be at one with.

In his rustic cabin on the bank of his beloved trout stream, his only companionship is his pet fish, Alfred.  Duncan's skill at artful writing is shown again in his explanation of why he'd choose a fish as a pet.  After admitting its shortcomings as a pet, like you can't take it for walks, or hold it on your lap, he adds, "But its compensatory virtues are overwhelming: it keeps itself exceedingly clean; it won't jump on your Sunday suit; it won't shed, won't bark you into an asylum; it will never roll in dead salmon rot, never scratch you, never bite the neighbor's toddler in the face, nor will it puke on your bedspread, piss in your shoes, or hump the leg of an important dinner guest."  A lot of his writing shows this tongue-in-cheek humor.

Eventhough it appeared as a recommended addition to the recommended Paddlers' Reading List, canoeing appears to any substantive degree in the book only once.  "In a canoe you don't just float down a river: you're part of it---a silent water creature responsive to every surge and flex of current, gliding like a fingertip over a naked green body."  A canoe was then picked up by the book jacket illustrator to show a man fishing from a canoe.  Other than this, it's a book about fishing and the narrator's association with a string of unusual characters, including his parents.

Two-thirds of the way through the book our character turns from fisherman to philosopher.  I know sitting idle for long hours under a brain-baking sun on an empty stomach can make one start to wander into another mental realm, but no, this was about shamen, and Taoists, and reaching spiritual equilibrium, allegories, Sufi, Zen, Kingdom come and fishers of men.  Our story had lost its way, and the author didn't know where to find it.  I was disappointed, but plowed ahead until I found the book plunging into an abyss.

Our fisherman, Gus, philosophizes and meditates until he finds his way to the line of light and love, a horizontal line that connects Gus and God.  When it came to the possibility of him finding himself inducted into the Army and sent to VietNam to kill and be killed, it all came down to who was on the line of light and who wasn't.  Some's destiny was to run to Canada,  some off to jail, and others to the jungles of VietNam, but since he was on the line of light and love, his destiny was to stay home.  In one terrible catastrophic crash, our story had leapt from the tracks and ended in a pile of rubble. 

Perhaps this was a story about a personal self-analysis, or some search, or maybe it was meant to be somehow cathartic.  I don't know.  I felt someone had come knocking at the door and shoved a religious tract in my hand: a six-paged tract, disguised as a book, veiled in a story about nature and fishing, but which would take nearly 300 pages to reveal itself.  I closed the book feeling cheated, hoodwinked, betrayed, and disappointed.  You've heard me rave about many of the books I've reviewed for you, and most that found their way to the reading list have been exceptional, but this one is coming off the list.

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