It has been many years since I read “A River Runs Though it” by Norman Maclean. The story is of course famous, from Robert Redford’s movie produced in 1992, but I think few people are familiar with the 1976 book that inspired the movie.
I say that the book inspired the movie, because what many seem to forget is that the movie differs from the written story. In fact the movie brings in elements of two stories which appear in the same book, and to which the full title alludes. “A River Runs Though it, And other stories”. So the movie is not, strictly speaking, just the story made into a film.
In re-reading the book recently, I developed a keen appreciation for the mastery of the movie produced by Redford. For example Redford condenses two scenes involving Neil and his “whore”, into one that captures the essence of it all. Two sets of sunburn; and of disappointment in his brother-in-law; and being at the brunt of the anger of the womenfolk in his wife’s family . And yes, Maclean does refer to the lady of the divided skirts as a “whore”, and in all three stories in his book, he displays a western coarseness which Redford delivered slightly more subtly, and in an aura of nostalgia which served to take the edges off. Redford makes no reference for example of the two brothers chasing the self same whore down the street “kicking her in the ass”. You will notice too, that I write here of Maclean’s wife, and brother-in-law, because the story takes place after they are married, and after his time in the forest service. The movie of course brings in the love interest by placing the story during Macleans courtship of his wife, and before his time in the Forest Service.
But quite aside from re-arranging the life sequence, you find many lines in the book which you will recognize from the movie. In other words they are quoted verbatim. The parts not quoted are of course the descriptions of people, and landscapes, but Redford captures these beautifully in the movie. Another part not repeated verbatim, is of course the subtlety of relationships and attitudes and outlook, and emotion, and herein lies Redford’s mastery. He somehow manages to capture these elements, which Maclean unpacks in detail in the written word, and does so by capture of light, facial expression, body language, background sound, and camera angle. The fact that I did a reverse analysis by reading the book after I saw the movie, and recognized these elements in the book, because I had picked up on them in the movie, speaks volumes for the skill of the movie maker.
As a fisherman, I delighted in some of the technical fishing detail contained in the written version. There was a little in there that would not have made it into a commercial production, seeking a broad audience, but which is of great interest to us technical flyfishing types.
In reading it again, I was struck by the unlikely product of academia that Maclean became as a professor of English, given his Rocky mountain upbringing amongst men “as tough as their axe handles”. His language skills of course gave him the ability to tell his family’s story with a resigned dignity and reverence that has one sighing in a sad and appreciative compassion as you turn the last page. Although I didn’t pick up on it when I read the book many years ago, as I came to the end this time around, I was left with a deep appreciation for this little masterpiece.
If you haven’t read the book, I can recommend it.
As I drove into work the other day I observed a bumper sticker that said “How do I drive?”, and I thought it was a bit late to be asking for such guidance.
In front of me was a truck full of waste. I wondered if it was headed for recycling, and then I spotted a punnet of rotten fruit pressed against the bars of the load-bed. It had a supermarket sticker saying “50% off”. It looked to be 75% full.
Then an armoured vehicle labeled “Asset protection” violated just about every traffic rule I know, pulling across the traffic, and a solid white line to push in front of me. I wondered how well, with actions like this, he might be protecting those assets…..
All this helped me to appreciate the levels of cynicism building within me after a long week dealing with the drudgeries and stupidities of business.
It made me think of a Shakespeare line quoted in Tod Collins’ recently published book: “I would challenge you to a battle of wits, but I see you are unarmed” , and I imagined when I might unleash that one on a colleague….
All of this , I mean the cynicism and penchant for unleashing cruel and derogatory comments, signals the need for time spent “just being”, and that is the topic for the aforementioned book of Tod Collins. He called the book “The Art of Being an Awful Angler”, but the title is a clever self-effacement, behind which sits a solid argument for the carefree, for the arcadian, and for the tranquil. In the book, Collins, by example alone, builds a case for the untroubled, sedate and contented state of an angler with no point to prove. The exploits on which he reminisces, are by no means dull or unadventurous. On the contrary, his tales are spread across continents, and situations and they bear testimony to an intrepid spirit. They are however mixed with both nostalgia, and a broad interest in all outdoor matters that one encounters as a fisherman. That being people, and places and birds and everything in which an observant and appreciative angler of modest intellect might immerse himself. He throws in references to literature and history while he is about it. The fly-fishing obsessed who have little regard for life beyond their tackle and their quarry will be skipping pages for sure. I am reading most pages twice. The stories are laced with people and places which I personally know, to the point that he mentions a few people by first name alone, and I know exactly who he is writing about. Coupled with the fact that I know many of these people, is that he relates to them with a decorum and civility that you would expect from their doting headmasters of yesteryear, and their family vicars.
In a world of fly-fishing literature, videos, blogs and magazines, in which angling pursuits are conducted in either environments pristine or exclusive , or in which everyone is cool (or trying a little bit too hard to be cool), this tome of bygone hue is as refreshing as it is unique for goal-driven times.
And I haven’t even finished reading it!
If I survive the retribution to my Shakespearean aspersions on my colleague’s wit, I will complete the book (slowly, and reading each page twice), and continue my praise in due course. In the meantime, and fearing damage to my typing hand, I thought I should punt this lovely publication.
When two publishers turned James Gilbraith down, he showed them the finger, and published his book himself.
I am thankful that he (through his highly esteemed “Guild of Reason”) did that, because had he not done so, I would have been deprived some snortingly good laughs. These typically happened in public places like coffee shops, where other patrons looked at me sideways.
That would be fitting, since in his book, Gilbraith manages to touch on, and fittingly describe, many of those thoughts that we have, but which we somehow don’t feel we can express publicly. It is no coincidence that this is the trait of many a comedian, and this little gem of a book is a comedy of note!
“Boo” as he is known, cleverly describes a single Salmon season, but does so in a way which gives you plenty of background, and lore, and build up to this point in his fishing life. He and his fishing buddy “Lamont” have an annual award, which is bestowed on whichever one of them manages to catch a Salmon while ducking some or other responsibility. The art of mastering sick days from work is key to their mischief, and these two average guys bring colour to life, by throwing themselves at the quest for Salmon. It is a deeply ingrained addiction that many of us identify with, but in this little book it is described like you have never read before.
Gilbraith is delightfully self deprecating and reckless and crude, as only the British can be. Moreover, he is not some snob, producing a catalogue of theory and advice. He merely has a good chuckle at himself, his mistakes, his blank days on his home water, and his frustrations. There are no high end exotic locations, and there is no name dropping. Almost all of his adventures take place on a good old common, “second rate” water: The river Ribble.
Add to that his outlandish descriptions and expressions, and you have a truly delightful tale. You will read it inside of two days, and be disappointed that it has come to and end so quickly.
Here’s hoping he writes again soon!