John Gierach's Latest

John Gierach's Latest

Plus, a John Holt Novel, and Stories by Scott Waldie

  • By: Seth Norman

At the Grave of the Unknown Fisherman By John Gierach (Simon and Schuster, 2003; 1-800-323-7445; 192 pp.; hardcover; $22.00

A couple of mix-ups led to me getting John Gierach's At the Grave of the Unknown Fisherman later than I would have liked, so I had only managed a quick read of it when the author came to speak at a local bookstore. He entertained and engaged the audience for an hour or so, then offered to answer questions. A guy way up front snapped to it. I couldn't hear every word and soon it was obvious I wasn't meant to—this was a conversation the man had been waiting to have with the author alone.

The gist of his remarks was that reading Gierach's books had made him feel like he had actually fished with him, standing nearby on a stream, engaged in conversation. He was very grateful for this. That made sense. Over decades of writing—14 books and countless columns, (including many at the end of this magazine)—Gierach has fished-by-proxy with many readers and presents adventures in a way that includes us. It's a gift Gierach shares with other writers in his class; Nick Lyons comes to mind.

I say it's a gift, but it's also art and craft and a lot of careful work. Perhaps somebody's dissertation will identify specific elements of this process. In the meantime, what's obvious is that Gierach creates familiarity as he travels in words, describing his world—places, people, fishing and ideas—in ways we recognize immediately.

"Oh yeah," I often found myself thinking while reading Unknown.

Sometimes this affirmation came with a smile, as when the author describes a roadside diner's chicken steak,"Try to imagine a slab of Spam dipped in pancake batter and deep fried in donut grease." At other moments I simply nodded to some pithy remark reminiscent of Will Rogers,"The thing is, fishing stories, war stories and love stories are all the same: There's more than just the facts, and when the facts get in the way they can become expendable."

Unknown traces a year in Gierach's angling life, proceeding quickly from the welcome respite of winter,"It's not that I'm tired, just 'Well fished' as a friend says"—to that point where he finds himself"idly studying the properties of firewood…a sign that winter has ground on too long." Soon after comes the onset of"shack nasties so bad I just barely avoided ice fishing."

Begin the Unknown itinerary: first a trip to Wyoming, where the author is a reluctant passenger on an ATV, catching air even as he's covered with mud on the way to fish for brook trout. From there, Gierach heads to unnamed Midwestern prairie lakes, holing up with author Ed Engle in a small cabin while waiting for the weather to settle."At six feet four inches…(Ed) couldn't stand up straight in it without bumping his head, which he did every half hour or so, on average. It pissed him off at first, but he finally seemed to accept it as the price you pay for being a tall man staying in a short, cheap shack."

In any given year Gierach fishes more and better than most of us, sometimes on Blue Ribbon streams and often in the company of accomplished companions. That said, I'll bet more than half of Unknown unfolds on waters with names we wouldn't recognize even if the author provided them, which he generally doesn't. Creeks, ponds and lakes without reputations—places he often finds special for their character rather than fish counts. Sometimes what's important is the experience of ferreting out one, the friendship enjoyed on the journey or the solitude he discovers in an evening. Gierach will drive for days and walk for hours to find good water, but he will also fish around campgrounds or just off the local road, doing well there because other anglers don't bother to try.

He loves catching cutts on dry flies cast with bamboo, but also likes bass, bluegill, grayling and—contrary to the impression left by a publicist—carp, which he finds"plain but impressive" in appearance and in some ways similar enough to bonefish"that if you catch one, you've got a decent start on the other."

The point here is Unknown, like all the author's writing I've encountered, relies not on exotic locales or astonishing prey. Instead, it's Gierach's observations—his blend of curiosity, modesty, candor and appreciation—that create special resonance and often adds"extra" to"ordinary."

Not that he's much inclined to superlatives like that one: he would rather show than tell, distill than inflate and let particulars lead to larger conclusions. In fact, at some point during his talk he made a casual reference to Zen, a philosophy with which I'm only casually aquatinted, and soon thereafter it struck me how his consideration of fly-fishing issues—the way these connect to questions of consequence, if they do at all—make them feel a little like koans. Not the kind that enlightened"Grasshopper," mind you, unless we're talking terrestrials…

In other essays Gierach has acknowledged that he carries a second coffee cup even when searching for a stretch of stream he can have to himself, in case company finds him while he's brewing. That generosity shows in Unknown; so does his desire for space and time spent far the madding crowd. I started meditating hard about space and respect by about the third time the fellow at the front of the bookstore audience inserted himself into the program, asserting again some variation of,"John, I really feel like I've fished with you. Like that pool on the Frying Pan, where maybe you got skunked but I caught…" By then the guy next to me was rolling his eyes and I, sadly, emerged from enlightened study only to wonder what kind of sound one hand would make clapping over a pair of loose lips. Instead, I asked a presumptuous question of my own, then as penance went home and reread Unknown, twice.

Hunted: a Novel By John Holt (Lyons Press, 2003;1-800-243-0495; 195 pp.; hardcover; $22.95

Many fly fishers know John Holt's work in the field. Hunted is a novel, however, with only a helping or two of fly-fishing in it. But the perils presented by Hunted do bear on issues of water, land and the people who hope to preserve what's left. Joe Graves, Holt's major player, is a man of conscience with many bad habits—a scarred iconoclast too often betrayed. What he wants is to be left mostly alone on his ranch, to hunt and fish his tiny trout stream, tryst with a lady when the moment's right and share chores, bottles and bursts of profanity with his neighbor Elmer.

Reasonable aspirations these seem until the giant mining company Dark Star reveals that Joe's father sold him out before dying. All Joe owns now is the water rights on his property and whatever dirt Dark Star leaves when it's done plundering minerals. But that's only the beginning of Joe's trials: soon his interior landscape is as ravaged as the country around him, where men and machines skin and carve the earth, pollute rivers and divert streams into burning coal seams. The mining company is as thorough and thoughtless as maggots on a carcass and lot better organized.

In an Edward Abby novel, Joe and Elmer would act. In Hunted, however, the friends tune to a quickening of mystic voices. Something is happening in the land, a gathering of forces, perhaps a reckoning. The evidence is subtle and sometimes odd: Elmer's pack of dogs go mute, much to his dismay, until roused by the howl of a buffalo wolf returned from extinction to stake his claim. In the meantime, Dark Star crews fall victim to horrific and inexplicable accidents even as a merciless drought bakes what's left of the country.

Ultimately, everybody and everything waits breathless for a storm. If Joe's Dark Star nemesis, Foxen, occupies one extreme—a driven, coldly deliberate and rapacious predator—Joe often drifts toward another, a man trapped in a state of righteous, profane and destructive rage. Holt's secondary characters wander between these men, staggering across broken moral ground. Elmer, for example, who muses aloud after finding an antelope tangled in his cattle fence."Dark Star, you, me, we haven't done right by this country. Oh, we all got our lame-dick reasons and excuses. The country needs energy. I need the money. I care for the land. I've lived here all my life. What a load of horseshit… That dead antelope. My fence killed it. Nothing else. Who in the Sam Hill am I kidding? Not the land."

Return to Traver's Corners Stories By Scott Waldie (Lyons Press, 2002; 1-800-243-0495; 276 pp.; hardcover; $22.95

Return to Traver's Corners is a sequel to the original gentle charmer, so it visits most of the same fictional lives in and around the mythical Montana town of the title. Interestingly enough, Scott Waldie's characters confront modest versions of the perils that dominate Hunted, among many others.

Waldie suggests part of this conflict in his intro."A dedicated urbanite" might dismiss Traver's Corners"as nothing more than a windblown gas station of a town;" artist and poets consider it"picturesque," and fly fishers believe they've found"Paradise." Each of the 329 residents, on the other hand, can name every business, describe the owners' history, role in community life, romantic adventures and favorite recipes. Return's narrator divides the world into such categories as oblivious (or arrogant) outsiders, sympathetic visitors and insiders. Tiny towns are like this, we know.

Even so, Traver's Corners seems distinguished from elsewhere by the warmth and intimacy of the people we find there, living quietly in a generous land, preferring a pace that will remind a reader"Life is short; so go slow." The town has always been this way. From an old journal we learn that the original settlement resulted from an adventure of friends in the 1860's. That friendship has traveled through generations and is now manifest by best pals Judson Clark, boatbuilder and guide, and Henry Albie,"maybe the best fly fisherman around."

Of course, there's a cur or two among them. Most of the time, however, it's outsiders who challenge, threaten, entertain, seduce or mystify local heroes. Some of these arrivals are obvious archetypes: the rich and rapacious investor in"Wretched Access;" a fly-fishing celebrity who's also a pretentious liar and the elegant and corrupted couple who build a mansion on the hill. Others are more exotic, even lovely in passing, like the lady who borrows Judson's heart and an actress whose fame, grace, and vulnerability mesmerize almost everyone she meets. Then there's Jed, an industrious and illiterate black man who practically drops from the sky, landing for good right across a fence from an honest, racist rancher… It is a puzzle, all right, when abstract prejudice collides with common decency, fairness and a host of other values. Yes, there's fly-fishing here and quite a lot. That's part of life, in Traver's Corners.