Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Streamside Reading: Threatened Species

Threatened Species - A novella and five stories
When I sat down to write this review, I tried to think of examples of “fly fishing-related fiction,” which is the term Jeff Vande Zande used when he asked if I would like a review copy of Threatened Species. I realized that—beyond The River Why—I wasn’t really familiar with very many. And Threatened Species is from a different part of the river than David James Duncan’s opus.

For some reason it seems we like our fly fishing stories to be real, or at least we like to think they are real. Thomas McGuane has written bunches of novels, yet he is most known in the fly fishing world for The Longest Silence, a collection of nonfiction essays. Even the great A River Runs Through It is a memoir not a novel (or a novella, like the title piece in Vande Zande’s new book). Perhaps we like to fool ourselves a little, and believe that we could be in the story, wading the river along with the protagonist. And believing that the events actually happened might help with the charade. I think that is why I never fell in love with The River Why*, the story and characters are so fantastic that I couldn’t fool myself into believing the characters and story were real.

*And with that one sentence I probably alienated two of my three readers. Sorry, that book just doesn’t do it for me. I wish that it did. I sort of feel like I got left off the guest list for a great party when The River Why appreciation conversations get rolling.

I suppose that Threatened Species reminds me most of Hemingway’s work, at least in its feel and its subject matter. Subtitled “A Novella and Five Stories,” these are character-driven tales about people who happen to fly fish (and sometimes they don’t even do that), rather than stories about fishing.

Like Hemingway’s characters, the folks that inhabit these stories are generally lonely and drifting, searching for happiness and meaning, having been let down by people they loved and by themselves in many ways. The title novella is the story of a father who desperately wants to keep from losing his son, yet seems at a loss as to how he might connect with the boy. Their common ground seems to be fishing, though the father can’t hold onto the connection long enough to make it work. I wasn’t crazy about the multiple perspectives Vande Zande used to tell the story, but the novella as a whole was affecting, I was rooting for the screw-up father for reasons I couldn't quite understand. Then again, I am a sucker for father-son stories that involve fishing.

The short stories were better than the novella, at least for me. The last two stories I especially enjoyed. They portrayed old men trying to forget about pain through time on the water. Older versions of Nick Adams, if you will, except these guys don't seem to be succeeding. Some of the other stories ignored fishing completely, but they weren’t any worse for it.

Most of tales are set in Michigan and appeared in various literary journals before being collected here. Vande Zande is attempting to write literature, so you won’t find the fast pace of John Grisham or Michael Bourne in these pages. The author enjoys turning a phrase and knows his way around the English language, including the subtle art of what to leave in and what to leave out.

Overall, I enjoyed the collection, even if I wasn’t bowled over. At the very least I certainly respected the author’s willingness to take chances, even if I found the characters somewhat tiring in their depression and their need to replay the past. So, if you are interested in some fly fishing-related fiction, you could probably do a lot worse than Threatened Species.* Its good to see someone attempting to write smart, literate, three-dimensional stories about people who fish.

*Full disclosure: if you purchase through a link in this post, the eddy gets a sliver of the money from Amazon. Just so you know.

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