WHAT THE RIVER KNOWS: AN ANGLER IN MIDSTREAM. By Wayne Fields. Poseidon Press. 288 pages. $18.95.
THE GENRE of fishing books is itself a meandering stream of unpredictable bends, riffles, pools and shoals. Fishermen (and women) who write generally spend so much of their time not catching fish that they get reflective. They also have to figure a way to justify large blocks of time spent doing what others see as aimless. Writers who fish deduct expenses from their income taxes.
The crafty Izaak Walton must have known this connection between writing and fishing, between the seJamesMerlihanrious and the comic. Otherwise, he would not have observed in "The Compleat Angler" that his purpose was to make "a recreation of a recreation; and that it might prove so . . . in the reading, and not to read dull and tediously, I have in several places mixed some innocent mirth."
For many, mirth and fishing go together like trout and mayflies. More serious writers disdain too much joking around. For whatever reason one reads Melville, it's not because of his knee-slapping humor.
Readers know instinctively not to pick up "The Old Man and the Sea" for its wry witticisms or tips on marlin fishing. Wayne Fields' memoir is cast more in the shadow of Melville, Thoreau, Hemingway and Annie Dillard than that of Izaak Walton, Ed Zern or Nick Lyons. He sorts through the pressures of family life, of being driven to write because the academy wants him to (as narrator, he's an English professor at a Midwestern university), of the summertime encounter with self and Cook's Run, a wild stream in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. He reveals his pent-up frustrations, which become a sensitive narrative of quiet rage.
"What the River Knows" reads like a journal, which it is. A typical day on the stream triggers a potpourri of insights ("Trout die silently, unobtrusively and out of sight, their colors dulling in the darkness of the creel") about rivers, the past, the woods, Fields' neighbors, his wife and children, his troubles. Haunting, italicized excursions into the past intrude parenthetically. He draws skillful parallels between the arts of fly-fishing and writing.
Memory is torture for Fields, and his torture is shared happily with the reader. On Page 2 his 14-year-old black lab named Smeagol convulses and is euthanized. Not a good portent. Neither is the fact that water continually spills over the tops of his chest-high waders. As Fields describes his earnest gesture to wade the entire length of Cook's Run, something probably not accomplished before, we hear of the poisoning of his childhood dog, Major; his daughter Elizabeth's heart disease, surgery, seizures, coma and recovery; radiation treatment on Joe, a neighbor on the lake; many other sidelights of sadness. Such melancholia can begin to weigh heavily on the most cheerful reader.
There is the narrator as a second grader in St. Louis, serving as a pallbearer at the funeral of an infant neighbor. There he is again, as a child thoughtlessly shooting a robin out of its nest, the adult gripped by memory, not knowing to whom to beg forgiveness. A man named Joe Columbus is electrocuted. A Down's syndrome baby occupying the bed next to his daughter in the hospital dies.
These and other finely drawn but depressing memories flow over Fields' waders into the reader's lap. A college friend with lymph cancer dies pathetically in an airport alone, away from home, desperately trying to outrun his disease. The cancer and howling madness of his grandfather gnaw at him. His graduate student friend steps in front of a train. Even the death of his daughter's pet monarch butterfly is resurrected as an example that life is simply not fair. Finally, he carries with him the guilt of his best student, killed in a car accident on a trip Fields encouraged him to take.
This is not the landscape of the happy fisherman. This is the psychotherapist's liquid couch. "I am unable," Fields writes, "have always been unable, to get my life in focus, to contain it in any meaningful way. I meant this venture to be different, to be orderly, one end to the other, from start to finish oriented on a specific goal. I intended to be the observer, not the observed, to be understood but not found out." Ambivalence and paradox are the true subjects here.
"Fishing," in the words of Arnold Gingrich, "is the least important thing about fishing." Fishing is also not all that central to the heart of "What the River Knows." But the pain of mid-life memory is.
James Merlihan lives in Darlington and fishes the Susquehanna.