Still Life with Brook Trout by John Gierach
Reviewed by Theo Pike
When I finished John Gierach's last book before 'Still Life with Brook Trout' - a slim-seeming volume entitled 'At the Grave of the Unknown Fisherman' - I put it down with the depressing conviction that it was his last. Probably compounded by its title and year book structure, the writing seemed to have a sad, elegiac quality, and I found it hard to believe I'd ever again experience that thrill I'd always felt on opening the covers of a new Gierach collection.
Thankfully, on this occasion my gut was wrong. With 'Still Life…', Gierach has hit his tone again, returning to that relaxed yet haiku-perfect style that reads so easily - probably, and I'm not the first to suspect it, because it's so damn hard to bring off with such consistency. Over the course of nineteen varied chapters, the author takes us fishing with him through his beloved, by-now-familiar corner of the Colorado Rockies, across the open plains to Nebraska and Wyoming, and even further afield to Oregon, Labrador, and Maine.
If 'Still Life…' has one major theme, it's drought: obvious problems (fire, low flows and trout kills), unexpected benefits (fewer fishermen - they've all stayed home), and how to cope with both (play the odds and go fishing in the places you wouldn't or couldn't in a normal year). Amidst all this lack of rainfall, there's one other problem that's more political and less predictable: how to stop Big Water and the rest of corporate America from flooding your home and trout stream to make themselves a shiny new reservoir… and pave the way for yet more profitable, unsustainable suburbs. I'd guess it's very rare for Gierach to make anyone's hair stand on end, but one of his asides on this point is authentically chilling:
'The New York Times probably said it best: Tree ring studies indicate that periodic dry spells have been common in the West for at least the last thousand years and that the twentieth century was unusually wet. Since most of the region's water laws evolved over that last hundred years, they said, the modern settlement of the West 'may have been based on a colossal miscalculation.' '
Notes of warning apart, this is Gierach back on the happy, wisecracking form of 'Trout Bum' and 'Another Lousy Day in Paradise', to pick a couple of his earlier books almost at random. Profundities and one-liners - and sometimes they're both - come thick and fast, and it's great to meet more of his fishing companions, including Thomas McGuane (author of 'The Longest Silence') and James Babb ('Crosscurrents').
Maybe it's a writer's thing, but I find it fascinating to hear about other authors hooking up: from their work, you can predict how they're likely to get on, and it brings fishing writing even closer to that feeling of dissecting a day on the water with your own well-known gossiping friends. On the UK side of the Pond, Charles Rangeley-Wilson has just done it with 'Somewhere Else', even giving us a bonus third angle on Babb and his 'freeze-dried crew' in the Maine Woods, but this feels like a first for the less-consciously-literary Gierach. He fishes among movers and shakers with the best of them, but those movers and shakers are far more likely to be what he'd call the blue-collar artisans of the sport than the professional literati of the publishing world. For Gierach, writing is simply the wordsmith's equivalent of the fly-tyer's perfect Blue Winged Olive, or the rod-maker's 'cosmic' bamboo taper. It's the apogee of the craft - at the same time, it's just another honest day's work:
'… where there's always either something new to say or at least new ways to say the same old things.' If you're a regular subscriber to the American 'hook and bullet' press, you may well recognise some of these stories. The Wind River chapter, for instance, where the fishing guide is a trainee psychiatrist, certainly came out in the June 2003 issue of 'Fly Rod & Reel' - the magazine that's wise enough to employ Gierach as Editor-at-Large, and his fishing companion AK Best as tying columnist.
Once collected into 'Still Life…', however, the editing at Simon & Schuster makes these articles seamless and even contiguous, unlike at least one relatively recent column-compilation from the UK. (Or perhaps it's simply the versatility of Gierach's style that reads like an article when it's a magazine, and morphs into literature the second it hits hard covers). In fact, I reckon the only fluffed presentation in 'Still Life…' is on the book's paper jacket, which mysteriously depicts a fisherman in silhouette with what's very clearly a nine-foot spinning rod. Inside, on the other hand, Glen Wolff continues his tradition of illustrating Gierach's work with beautiful, almost pointillist, pen-and-ink designs at the start of every chapter - the perfect visual foil for the words around them.
So what's next for John Gierach? As the books line up on the shelf, he's clearly feeling older, but the spirit doesn't dim. In his own words:
'I didn't plan on it, but it's beginning to look as though steelheading is my next thing. It's a difficult, sometimes physically demanding, occasionally satisfying sport that's best taken up in your twenties instead of when you're pushing sixty, but then we're not always in control of these things. They seem to happen by themselves while we just go along for the ride, doing the best we can.' There's a deep groundedness here, a fly-fisherman at peace with himself, his calling, and where he's going with it, intentionally or otherwise. By my diary, he'll already be lining up those steelheading articles for 2007. Till then, we can re-read and savour 'Still Life with Brook Trout'.
'I write the stories as well as I can because it's my chosen craft, but also because I know they'll eventually replace the actual memories. You write what you remember and then remember what's written down.' From one fishing writer to another, there's one compliment that trumps the lot.
I wish I'd caught that.
Still Life with Brook Trout by John Gierach is published in the USA by Simon & Schuster. Hardback 213 pages.
Theo Pike is a writer first and a small-stream fly-fisher second - though it's sometimes less clear-cut than that would suggest. Currently he's working for an advertising agency in West London, but he can also be contacted for writing and editing commissions through his freelance web site, www.blackrussian.cc When not writing or fishing, he can be found tackling litter, pollution and abstraction problems on the River Wandle, the South London chalk stream where Frederic Halford first learned to cast a dry fly, as a Trustee of www.jetsetclub.co.uk He is also Senior Vice President of the newly-founded Wandle Piscators fishing club.
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