I just zipped through Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It and was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying a novella about fly-fishing. Now, in the interest of forthrightness, I am not a fisherman and probably will not ever be. There is some form of patience involved that I do not possess. However, Maclean’s short narrative did get me thinking that maybe I should give it another shot. Anyways, in the Foreword Annie Proulx writes taht this novella is “one of the rare truly great stories in American literature – allegory, requiem, memoir – and so powerful and enormous in symbol and regret for a lost time and a lost brother, for human mortality and the consciousness of beauty, that it becomes part of the life experience of the reader, unforgettable” (xi). This is high praise, and I’m not quite sure that my own reading experience of A River matches up to it, but I do think that she does a good job summarizing what the novel gets at.
Maclean’s novella is both a fishing story about two brothers and an attempt by the narrator to come to grips with his inability to help his alcoholic, hard-living brother out. Like Hemingway’s work, fishing is a masculine pursuit that has careful rituals that must always be observed, requires skill, strength, and dexterity, and becomes an almost mystical activity that connects man back to nature. I am more than a little skeptical about these kinds of narratives, particularly because of how they set up nature as an exclusively male domain for the testing of “manliness”. The unnamed narrator is an older brother to Paul, a journalist whose sole goal in life is to fish as much as possible and enjoy himself without working too hard. However, his idea of enjoyment involves a fair amount of alcohol and he also has inherited a feisty Scottish temper that often lands him in trouble. The narrator and his Scot-Presbyterian minister father are caught unable to help Paul, but instead watch as his life begins to fall apart. Paralleling this, the narrator is asked by his wife to also help her brother, Neal, who has his own problems which also involve alcohol and an inability to come to grips with reality. Most of the helping happens around fishing trips that achieve various degrees of success.
Maclean packs his novella with humor, irony, poignancy, and a number of reflections on faith and the broken human condition. I was taken in by his smooth and free-flowing prose. The ending nearly brought me to tears in a coffee shop, no mean feat, and I feel like this is a story that I may come back to at some point. A university roommate of mine loved this book and he is now an avid fly-fisherman. I cannot say for certain whether the novella caused this, but Maclean is able to paint fly-fishing in a sublime light.
I would recommend this book for fans of fishing or readers.
Maclean, Norman. A River Runs Through It and Other Stories. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. Print.