Confession time. I'm a river-slash-book lover who has never read Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It. I've never even watched the movie. Drinking by the Rappahannock with one of the movie's leads (former board member...not Brad Pitt) is the closest I've come. Instead, it was the enchanted, river religiosity of David James Duncan that further exposed me to the transformative, motivational power of words.
My introduction to Duncan came years ago when I got my hands on a collection of his essays, My Story as Told by Water (do yourself a favor and look up the incredibly long subtitle). His essays painted salmon, trout and the spirituality of the fly fisherman in the way that makes the breath catch in your throat. And, while this is a pivotal work in my personal canon, it's his novel, The River Why, that I want to talk about today.
The River Why is a bit of a modern-day Walden, following the young Gus Orviston, a fly fisherman from a fishing obsessed family, as he leaves his family and isolates himself in a remote cabin on one of Oregon's rivers. On a journey of self-discovery, Gus boils much of his days down to eating, sleeping and fishing as he tries to follow nature's biological rhythms. While I found Gus a bit too self-indulgent at times, Duncan's beautiful prose would lure me back in.
“And so I learned what solitude really was. It was raw material - awesome, malleable, older than men or worlds or water. And it was merciless - for it let a man become precisely what he alone made of himself.”
When Duncan gets it so right (like he does below), the excitable, effusive girl inside of me wants to leap up, pumping my fist in the air and shouting "hell yeah!"
"Fisherman should be the easiest of men to convince to commence the search for the soul, because fishing is nothing but the pursuit of the elusive. Fish invisible to laymen like me are visible to anglers like you by a hundred subtle signs. how can you be so sagacious and patient in seeking fish, and so hasty and thick as to write off your soul because you can’t see it?"
If you've got a low tolerance for impassioned soap-box rhetoric, you may want to approach this novel with a bit of trepidation. Duncan is not particularly subtle and doesn't sugar-coat his views on how we treat the planet. Of course, that's only a tiny part of what I like about him.