Just as Norman Maclean writes at the end of "A River Runs through It" that he is "haunted by waters," so have readers been haunted by his novella. A retired English professor who began writing fiction at the age of 70, Maclean produced what is now recognized as one of the classic American stories of the twentieth century. Originally published in 1976, A River Runs through It and Other Stories now celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary, marked by this new edition that includes a foreword by Annie Proulx. Maclean grew up in the western Rocky Mountains in the first decades of the twentieth century. As a young man he worked many summers in logging camps and for the United States Forest Service. The two novellas and short story in this collection are based on his own experiences--the experiences of a young man who found that life was only a step from art in its structures and beauty. The beauty he found was in reality, and so he leaves a careful record of what it was like to work in the woods when it was still a world of horse and hand and foot, without power saws, "cats," or four-wheel drives. Populated with drunks, loggers, card sharks, and whores, and set in the small towns and surrounding trout streams and mountains of western Montana, the stories concern themselves with the complexities of fly fishing, logging, fighting forest fires, playing cribbage, and being a husband, a son, and a father. By turns raunchy, poignant, caustic, and elegiac, these are superb tales which express, in Maclean's own words, "a little of the love I have for the earth as it goes by." A first offering from a 70-year-old writer, the basis of a top-grossing movie, and the first original fiction published by the University of Chicago Press, A River Runs through It and Other Stories has sold more than a million copies. As Proulx writes in her foreword to this new edition, "In 1990 Norman Maclean died in body, but for hundreds of thousands of readers he will live as long as fish swim and books are made."
"In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing"
So starts the chronicle of the hot summer of 1937, the last Maclean spent with his younger brother Paul. This is an unparalleled piece of writing, a poignant and captivating memoir of a particular moment in time for this family and an evocative description of a bygone era in Montana. Maclean's descriptive talents are immense and there is great poetry to his portrayal of fly-fishing as an art form. He applies them equally as effectively when describing the natural world around him and the reader is transported to a time past - feeling the lazy summer heat and the constant flow of the great Montana waters.
He is exceptionally perceptive in his description and analysis of his relationship with his brother Paul. The mirroring of their interaction in the landscape as the brothers cross the Continental Divide at the same time as it becomes apparent there is a great divide in their own lives is subtly achieved.
It is a short work that is peppered with humour to balance the poignancy of events, none more so than the extremely funny description of the disdain which fly fisherman have for fishermen of the bait variety. The descriptions of Maclean's brother-in-law (a bait fisherman, no less) especially on the ill-fated fishing trip which culminated in a naked, sunburnt prostitute running down the main street, are ascerbic and brilliant.
This short novella is as much a history of the waters and fish of Montana, as it is of the family Maclean. The river lives in it as a character all of its own and the reader finds themselves infused with the same love and enthusiasm for fish and the art of fly-casting as Maclean and his family have.
"If you listen carefully, you will hear that the words are underneath the water"
Maclean's use of words and vocabulary choices are second to none. This piece is rich and full. I found myself noting so many quotes from it, just because I found his phrasing so beautiful and his meaning so relevant. It is a piece that is based on a deep foundation of words that breathe life into the natural world around the protagonists.
In the end, however, this story of a family tragedy is heartbreaking. The description of the final fishing trip the sons took with their ageing father is almost painful as the reader is already equipped with the knowledge each moment is one that would never be repeated. Maclean artfully conveys the inevitability of Paul's death through his character building and leaves the reader aching for the loss both to the family and the world, of a brother, a son and an artist.
I cannot recommend this highly enough. It is a classic work and is both moving and affecting. Maclean puts it more eloquently than I ever could:"I am haunted by waters".
Norman begins the story by laying out the terms by which his father and brother live. And by live I mean fish. Fishing is their life --- sad, stressed, and/or happy --- they fish. It transports them to another place where time doesn’t so much matter as long as you get your limit. Paul is a stubborn soul and Norman admits to not being able to understand him or connect with him on his own level which both frustrates and amazes him. His life is boring but orderly and while he may not be the happiest of people, Norman knows who and what he is. Paul is unpredictable, strange, and a wonder with a rod anywhere near water. Even their father has trouble relating to Paul but everyone stands in awe of him, from the careless way he leads his life to the way he can fish a river.
A River Runs Through It is a short chronicle of Paul’s life and Norman’s struggle to understand it. It’s also very sad but I won’t go into spoilers here. You do have to read it to understand the depth he manages to convey with so few words. It’s astonishing.
I love the role the Montana landscape plays in this story. It’s a living being especially the river in which they fish and consider almost a reverent part of the family in ways. Neither brother fears the river although they have a certain respect for it but it’s Paul who seems able to tame it and that’s where Norman’s awe of his brother comes in. His descriptions of Paul’s fishing are poetic in a way. His descriptions of Paul’s fishing abilities are poetic in a way and should be read to be fully appreciated so I won't try to describe it for you.
There are a few additional stories in the book I have, A River Runs Through It being the only one I’ve read so far. Since this is a short story and the best known of Maclean’s work, I wanted to include it here as a separate review. I think it warrants that. It’s an emotionally moving story that feels much longer than its scant 100 pages.
Few women raise their heads in these stories, and those who dare are of only two types:
*The “whores” are very much like the men; they share their adventures, but are neither loved nor respected by them.
*The strong "Scotswomen” rule the roost, serving as Christian wives and mothers, operating in the background while providing a firm foundation for life. The men love them, but prefer not to have too many run-ins with them.
I propose that the book will appeal best to men and/or those who enjoy the outdoor life, although even a woman who prefers a comfortable chair by the fire will find truth in its pages.
Sometimes there was a little too much information about fly fishing. I get that it was sometimes a metaphor, but still...
I did love the way that the approach to fly fishing reflected the family relationships and expectations. I thought the last scene was beautiful.
In the title story, a man tries to save, and then just to understand his brother and himself, through the prism of the country and fly-fishing. The descriptions are so entwined with the characters that I felt I knew both by the end. The scenery is never there just for filler - but it filled me with a longing to see it nevertheless.
The other two stories, "Logging and Pimping and "Your Pal,Jim"", and "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Coook and a Hole in the Sky", are set in logging camps in the same area, with a young narrator making his way among other men and within himself.
Wonderful writing, wonderful stories.
The title story is about fly-fishing and family. In the story, as in fishing, much occurs under the surface. The narrator, his brother Paul, and their minister father are all serious and devoted fly fishermen. Fishing and religion held equally important places in their lives as children. Fishing now takes priority, at least for the sons: “It is not fly fishing if you are not looking for answers to questions.” The similarities end there. Paul, the best fisherman among them, is a reporter with a drinking problem and a troubled life. Their father, a gentle man, “believed that man by nature was a mess.” Their mothers and wives are the glue that holds everything together outside of fishing. At the end, they are all trying to become “the author of something beautiful, even if it is only a floating ash.”
A young logger admires and feels compelled to compete for manhood with “the best lumberjack in camp” over the summer’s logging in 1927 in “Logging and Pimping and ‘Your Pal, Jim’.”
In “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky” the 17 year old narrator works in a forest service crew for the summer led a by a ranger, Bill Bell, when “they still picked rangers for the Forest Service by picking the toughest guy in town.” The crew cook, who the narrator doesn’t like, is a card shark. The crew engages in an end of the summer rite – “cleaning out the town” in a card game, and it goes about as expected – with trouble.
These are richly and wonderfully told stories of growing into manhood, and further, in the west.
It drives me slightly crazy when people suggest this book is about fly fishing (and I say that as a fly fisherman). It's about Maclean's family, and to that end, he carefully and honestly paints a group portrait that absolutely entranced me.
A River Runs Through It was turned into a movie (and survived it better than most works of literature), and has been commercialized and overused by every fly fishermen who fancies himself a writer.
Fortunately, the book sits, waiting to be read and enjoyed for what it is -- a superb portrait of an interesting (if somewhat tragic) family. A must read.