A Jerk on One End: Reflections of a Mediocre Fisherman

Overview

"In some ways it's a ridiculous human passion," renowned author and art critic Robert Hughes confesses of his lifelong devotion to fishing. But it is a powerful, abiding passion nonetheless, one that Hughes shares with presidents and paupers, philosophers and truants, mystics and macho deep-sea warriors. Author of the acclaimed The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding, The Culture of Complaint, and American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, Hughes now brings his wit, insight, critical eye, and...
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Overview

"In some ways it's a ridiculous human passion," renowned author and art critic Robert Hughes confesses of his lifelong devotion to fishing. But it is a powerful, abiding passion nonetheless, one that Hughes shares with presidents and paupers, philosophers and truants, mystics and macho deep-sea warriors. Author of the acclaimed The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia's Founding, The Culture of Complaint, and American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, Hughes now brings his wit, insight, critical eye, and incomparable genius for narrative to bear on the pastime he loves best.

Hughes acknowledges that if he were to amortize the market value of the fish he catches in a year against the expense of catching them, he'd be shelling out about $55 a pound on bluefish alone. But clearly he's not in it for the money. In A Jerk on One End, Hughes traces his love of fishing back to his earliest boyhood on Sydney Harbor, Australia, and recounts the high and low points of his career with rod and reel--the first surge of triumph when he snagged a six-pound bonito, the shame of having his father catch him trout-fishing with live bait (the most perfidious failing in the eyes of every fly-fisher), hair-raising shark tales he picked up on the Sydney waterfront.

Here too is a history of fishing going back to classical antiquity, along with meditations on the art and philosophy of fishing and deep draughts of the finest fishing writing through the ages. Hughes gazes long and hard into the shining eyes of his prey and captures the essence of each noble species in brilliant verbal portraits--the delicate striped bass, most amenable to cooking and most susceptible to urban pollutants; the infinitely treacherous tarpon; the fastidious, elusive trout; the giant bluefin tuna, which holds the dubious honor of being the most expensive and sought after animal on earth. And in one unforgettable passage, he adopts the fish's point of view and forces us to imagine the horror of being hooked and reeled into an alien element.

Fishing, Hughes asserts, taught him patience as a boy and reverence for nature as man. In the concluding pages of this splendid book, he draws on this reverence to make a powerfully reasoned plea for the ecology of the sea. Mixing memoir, history, adventure, folklore, and stunning descriptions of the fathomless mysteries of the deep, Robert Hughes has written an absolutely magnificent volume. A Jerk on One End is a superb piece of prose and a profound meditation on the beauty, the excitement, and the peerless pleasures of fishing--and of life.

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Editorial Reviews

Kirkus Reviews
An unlikely match of subject, author, and series (this is a volume in the Library of Contemporary Thought) puts art critic and historian Hughes (American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, 1997, etc.) at the other end of a fishing pole.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345422835
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/5/1999
  • Series: Library of Contemporary Thought
  • Edition description: 1 ED
  • Pages: 128
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 8.27 (h) x 0.58 (d)

Meet the Author

Robert Hughes was born in Sydney, Australia, and has lived and worked in the United States since 1970, as art critic for Time magazine. He has received numerous awards, including an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Among his twelve previous books are The Shock of the New, The Fatal Shore, The Culture of Complaint, and American Visions: The Epic History of American Art.
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Read an Excerpt

Most fish become familiar if you go after them regularly. Yet not completely so, for each fish is new, and there are moments when the sense of strangeness revives and sits bolt upright; these are among the high points of any fisher's career. The one I remember most vividly happened off Montauk, at the eastern tip of Long Island, in the summer of 1985. I was on an overnight trip to fish for tuna on the Canyon, a part of the continental shelf about seventy miles out in the Atlantic, in a no-frills offshore boat skippered by an artist friend, Alan Shields. After the long night's run out, the sun rose golden and glorious out of the Atlantic and the sea was flat calm; you could see the smallest ripple a mile away. We set the trolling lines and the "bird," a teaser with two wings that fluttered on the surface sixty feet back from the stern and was supposed to excite the curiosity of fish. That done, there was nothing to do but wait. An hour later, nothing had come up. And then Alan saw something dead ahead: the unmistakable sickle fins of two giant bluefin tuna, hovering on the light-stricken surface as though sunning themselves. They were perhaps half a mile ahead. If we went past them at trolling speed, we would scare them down. There was probably no way of get-ting them to strike at a lure. But Alan wanted one of those fish (at the prices the Japanese were paying dockside at Montauk for prime bluefin, he could have paid for a whole season's fuel with it), and he decided to go after them with a harpoon. He would steer the boat and I would be up in the bow with the spear, whose detachable bronze head was already rigged to several hundred feet of line and an orange balloon buoy. There I would stand, intrepidly balanced out on the bow pulpit, as we treacherously sneaked up on the fish, and when I was within range, I would fling the harpoon into the tuna's vitals. There was only one snag about this arrangement. I am not Queequeg. My only experience of spearing fish was sniggling eels with a small trident. Of hitting a tuna from above with a ten-foot spear, I had no conception, and the fact that fishermen used to do this as a matter of course in their pursuit of tuna, swordfish, and other monsters of the deep off Montauk meant very little to me. I was a rank novice, a mere art critic, and (worse) an art critic who had read several cautionary yarns of what happens to incautious harpooners who happen by accident to get a coil of line around their arm, leg, or even neck as it comes burning out of the tub, pulled by a quarter-ton of potential sashimi, maddened with shock and pain, accelerating down and away into the oceanic abyss. Tuna can do sixty miles an hour. This thought hung before me as I drew closer to the fish, nervously balancing the shaft in my hand. I focused on the nearer fish. It seemed to hover in the water: the silver flanks, the dark blue back, not the leaden darkness of a dead fish, but alive, inexpressibly vital, the small dorsal finlets glowing yellow. Closer and closer. And then I caught its eye, that huge eye with its hypnotic black center, evolved to capture every last photon in the deep sea. God, it occurred to me, was looking at me through that fish. I was frozen. Dimly I heard a voice from the flying bridge behind me: "Stick him! Stick him!" But I couldn't; I couldn't imagine throwing the harpoon. The eye had paralyzed me. Later I would learn from other fishermen, such as Peter Matthiessen, that this was not an uncommon occurrence. Never look at the tuna's eye, ran the conventional wisdom. Or at a swordfish's, either, which is even larger and more hypnotic. But I will never forget the sight of that bluefin, in the splendor of its unreflective life, or how it slid out of sight with the merest quiver of its body, cleanly accelerating through the blue, gone forever. It took Alan some time to forgive me.
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