Reviewed by Jeremy Larance
24 july 2013 archive
In his preface to Astream: American Writers on Fly Fishing (2012), Robert Demott speculates that "no one knows precisely how many books on angling have been published in the past 500 years." He is, however, certain that "there are enough to qualify angling as the most frequently written about sporting activity in the world" (xiii). He also adds that there are "more anthologies of fishing essays than a person could shake a fly rod at," but—like an angler shopping for flies—there is always room for just one more. And, to be fair, Astream does have a lot to offer, especially given the fact that this anthology is comprised almost entirely of original essays, whereas most collections of this kind typically pull essays together from other sources. Of the thirty essays in Astream, only six appeared in earlier forms, and, of those six, four have been revised. Most of the contributors are already highly revered among the fly-fishing literati, most notably Ted Leeson, Nick Lyons, and Thomas McGuane. But even readers who have never thought once about picking up an issue of Field & Stream will likely recognize at least a few names, including the novelist Howard Frank Mosher and the actor Michael Keaton, whose essay on fishing with his father in western Pennsylvania stands up well among an impressive lineup of essays, the grand majority of which were written by seasoned journalists, novelists, poets, and a not-so-surprising array of distinguished English professors.
There is, after all, something about fly fishing that makes it an especially suitable subject of literature. There is an art and a literal feel to fly fishing that simply cannot be experienced with any other form of angling, and there is a complexity of movement and thought that exceeds the simpler, though frequently more effective, use of the rod and reel. As many of Astream's contributors note, reading and writing about fly fishing are the only ways they can adequately understand their own devotion. Take, for example, Ron Ellis's description of how he first fell in love with the sport, long before he even made his first cast: "First, I began to read about the charms of fly fishing and how the 'long rod' imparted magic to the entire fishing experience. The fly rod converts were evangelistic about its benefits" (64). In Astream, essayists consistently compare the romantic draw of fly fishing to their love (and hate) of writing. In her essay titled "Why I Fish," Kim Barnes reasons that her love of fishing is, in fact, directly related to her passion for literature. "I have learned to read water," she writes, "like I first learned to read books—instinctively, as though the ability were innate" (4). Similarly, Kate Fox notes, in her experience, "that a majority of good anglers also appear to be excellent writers" (85). The correlation between fishing and writing, in other words, appears to work in both directions, which is perhaps why the list of essayists in Astream is fairly equally divided between fishers, who were drawn to write about their sport, and writers, who were drawn to the sport they want to write about. The poet Chris Dombrowski, for example, tells the story of a conversation he had with a colleague after discussing the likelihood of publishing his poetry:
"You're too ambitious Shit, just keep going fishing—the returns are better."This "innate" relationship between writing and fly fishing (as well as the desire to explain that relationship) is echoed throughout many of the essays.
"Do you ever wonder," I asked, "why so many writers like to fish?"
"No, I don't wonder about it at all. Fishing is pointless and intuitive And a real fisherman, a real writer"—he took a sip of his gas station coffee—"he's crazy, crazy as a shithouse rat" (58)
All of the essays are essentially first-person accounts of each author's personal experiences with fly-fishing, usually focusing on a particular trip, location, or fishing companion. Unfortunately, especially to an unseasoned angler, many of these essays might seem, at first, to be nothing more than well-written "fish tales" about the ones that got away. For the uninitiated, many of the more detailed passages probably sound a great deal like reading Finnegans Wake. Take, for example, Sydney Lea's description of his search for the perfect fly:
Muddler, Matuka, Ranger, various leech patterns, on and on. I even tossed an Atlantic salmon fly or two, just to say I'd tried everything. Nothing doing, so out came the nymph box, or boxes: Prince, Copper, John, Coachman, Art Flick's deadly Stone Creeper, and, more lethal still We called it the White-Ass Baboon: mallard quill thorax wrapped in nubbled gold wire ahead of roughened snowshoe hare dubbing, no wing. And as I say, every other pattern in my kit. Nada. (137)Undoubtedly, an amateur reading the above passage will likely do one of two things: repeatedly consult Wikipedia or hastily move on to the next line like a freshman reading "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." To the polished angler, however, Lea's passage might possibly be nothing short of sublime, a poetic tribute to man's search for meaning in life . . . or maybe not. Maybe it is indeed "pointless and intuitive." Fly fishermen, after all, are an admittedly peculiar bunch to begin with, a sentiment shared proudly by almost every contributor.
The essays in Astream are arranged alphabetically, so there are no formal divisions of content or theme. While the casual reader may not notice this choice, DeMott does suggest that his collection would be a suitable textbook for college survey courses using "anthologies of sporting literature" (xviii). Of course, teachers who want to use Astream could arrange the readings in any way that they see fit, but if the editor did intend on marketing this particular collection as a textbook, such an arrangement might be useful. That being said, dividing original essays up into oversimplified categories is often an arbitrary process in of itself, especially when those essays cover a multitude of overlapping themes, which is certainly the case with the diversity of the essays in Astream. There are the common topics that one would expect to see in practically any collection of essays on angling—or any sport for that matter, but, if anything, the themes that seem to permeate Astream the most are those related to "manly" relationships: man and fish, man and nature, man and life, man and writing, man and man (especially fathers), and man and woman (or, in a least a few cases, woman and man).
On that note, it is also worth noting that only five of the thirty essays are written by women, a potentially problematic but mostly unavoidable discrepancy since, as Pam Houston notes in her essay titled "In the Company of Men," there are "a hell of a lot of men who fly fish" (111); conversely, women, even those who contributed essays to this collection, are often viewed as outsiders. In some way or another, each female contributor associates fishing with its seemingly unavoidable connections to masculinity. In "Life Among the Anglish," Kate Fox acknowledges the gender barriers of her chosen sport by describing the ways in which fishing "allows [her] to re-enter the male realm" (80) where she becomes "comfortable in the company of men—accustomed to their direct and practical way of assessing the world" where "they seemed to tolerate [her] because [she] didn't throw or run like a girl" (81). The two essays that coincidentally bookend the collection, Kim Barnes's "Why I Fish" and Robert Wigley's "Fishing Together," are arguably the most interesting in this regard. Barnes (a novelist) and Wigley (a poet) are married, and each chose to write about fishing with the other. Similar in content, their respective essays differ in revealing ways; take, for example, Barnes's description of an exceptionally difficult catch:
I plow the net, using both hands to raise it, but I'm shaking so hard that I can't slip the hook. I tell him how beautiful he is, tell him to hang on, just a minute longer as I slog to the bank where I can lay down my rod and work him free. I cradle him in the current, move him to and fro, work his gills, croon to him because that is what comes to me to do. (8)Wrigley, ever the poet, sees things a bit differently:
I love to watch her with a fish. The bigger, more impressive ones she likes to talk to. She almost coos. She tells the fish how beautiful it is. A couple of times she has even given an especially nice trout a kiss. Her attachment, and her gratitude, seem a lot deeper than mine. I admire the fish and let it go, usually with all deliberate speed. She dawdles some, and that seems to be just so that she can be in the presence of the trout a little longer (267)The different structure of the sentences, especially Wrigley's use of shorter sentences, is one thing, but the more interesting point of comparison lies in the ways in which each chooses to describe Barnes's interaction with the fish. Barnes refers to the fish as "he" while Wrigley simply opts to use the common "it," and while Barnes describes her last moment with the fish using the verb "cradle," Wrigley says she "dawdles." Of course, Barnes is more than aware of this difference herself, as is Wrigley, who acknowledges the difference by pointing out that Barnes's "attachment" and "gratitude" are "deeper" than his own. "I love fishing," he writes, "she loves catching fish" (265).
Again, given the alphabetical ordering of the authors, one can only assume that the placement of these two essays is purely coincidental, but the juxtaposition does underscore many of the things that make this volume a unique and welcome addition to the angling library, and given the pedigree of its contributors, this book is almost certainly a must-read for fans of the genre.
DeMott, Robert, ed. Astream: American Writers on Fly Fishing. New York: Skyhorse, 2012.
Copyright © 2013 by Jeremy Larance