McPhee on shad -- there's a whole world of fanatics

October 13, 2002|By Candus Thomson | By Candus Thomson,Sun Staff

The Founding Fish, by John McPhee. Farrar Straus & Giroux. 352 pages. $24.

Can you have too much of a good thing?

If the author is John McPhee and the subject is shad, the answer is, unfortunately, yes.

The Founding Fish is McPhee's attempt to explain why men will stand hip-deep and shoulder-to-shoulder in fast-moving water for a chance to hook a shad, engaging in fisticuffs, ignoring canoeists in peril and blowing off family dinners in the process.

McPhee, a New Yorker staff writer, Princeton writing teacher and 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner, cheerfully admits to being one of the obsessed. That blind spot -- and his editor's reluctance to reel his author in -- is what keeps this book from being all it could be, which is shorter.

It's a shame, too, because stretches of the book are as powerful as the creatures themselves and their instincts to return to the place of their birth. His descriptions of hooking and playing a female shad on her way to spawn puts you in the Delaware River, rod tip bent, line singing, neck and shoulder muscles taut.

And no matter which side you've taken in the catch-and-release debate, McPhee lays out your point of view and the other side powerfully and without apologies.

Luckily, the author is no Captain Ahab. He does have a sense of humor about shad and is not above having a little fun with his subject. He quotes a master dart maker Armand Charest's recipe for a fish dinner: "You take a shad. You put it in a pressure cooker with a brick. You cook it for eight hours. Then you throw away the shad and eat the brick."

McPhee even garners sympathy with his soul-bearing confessional: "When I go fishing, I don't take patience with me, having none to take."

But eyelids droop as he wades through our founding fathers' ties to shad and rehashes the near-demise of shad after dams were built that blocked spawning rivers.

The Founding Fish doesn't even swim in virgin water. In his 1997 book, Cod, Mark Kurlansky incorporated biology, history, ecology and recipes -- and more succinctly -- than McPhee.

No one could ever accuse the author of being a slacker when it comes to research. Whether he's parting the scrub trees in The Pine Barrens or unfolding the mysteries of the Swiss Army like a red-handled multipurpose knife in La Place de la Concorde Suisse, McPhee always delivers the kind of "gee-whiz" detail that can be sprinkled through dinner conversation or party chatter.

However, his other subjects have been much larger and worthy of 300-plus pages. For example, in his Pulitzer-winning Annals of the Former World, McPhee had both North American geology and the observations of scientists to work with.

Not even McPhee's immense writing talent can disguise the fact that a story about shad is perhaps best served by something magazine length.

Or, as a first mate from Boston wisely consoled a fumbling angler who let one get away, "Pally, it's just a fish."

Candus Thomson, outdoors writer at The Sun, has hiked the Swiss Alps, the Presidential Range in New Hampshire and across the Grand Canyon. She has worked as a features editor, bureau chief and state reporter in her 12 years at The Sun. Before that, she was a reporter in Massachusetts and New Hampshire for 16 years.

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