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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
Thomas McGuane's The Longest Silence features more fly-fishing than A River Runs Through It. Some readers may take this as a warning. Yet when an author mines his obsessions -- as McGuane does in this ode to fishing -- there is always something interesting to learn.
Throughout his life, McGuane has repeatedly gravitated to where the bonefish, mutton snapper, and permits are. He has traveled extensively in the States and abroad: in addition to fishing in the Florida Keys, Montana, and Rhode Island, he has fished desolate sanctuaries in New Zealand, Argentina, Iceland, Russia, and British Columbia. During his travels he has met a succession of anglers, crusty and competitive, who share his undying devotion to the sport and his habit of returning his catches to the river. Anglers are quirky people, and in his 33 essays McGuane recasts some of their touching and humorous stories.
Like most fly-fishers, McGuane enjoys company but prefers the solitude his sport has to offer. He repeatedly expounds upon fly-fishing's bare essentials: the tackle, the fish, and the river. "I subject the reader to my inventory for two reasons," writes McGuane, "First, I myself love to read this sort of thing, sniffing around the author's tackle room; and second, to suggest that what's at work here has nothing to do with necessity but rather with the elaboration of the dream that is fishing." McGuane has mastered the craft of fly-tying, and his knowledge and adoration of fish is obsessive. He suggests there is a correlation between the personalities of fishermen and the fish they stalk: the predator and the prey.
McGuane's physical descriptions of fly-fishing and light philosophical musings are entertaining, but there remains something important and mysterious about the sport that is more difficult to communicate. The driving force behind The Longest Silence is McGuane's attempt to understand and flesh out precisely what it is that he loves. To this end, his tone oscillates. At times he is earnest and reverent, "An undisturbed river is as perfect a thing as we will ever know, every refractive slide of cold water a glimpse of eternity." Elsewhere in the book, McGuane is entirely whimsical. He is most effective when he combines the two: "I try to tie flies that will make me fish better, to fish more often, to dream of fish when I can't fish, to remind myself to do what I can to make the world more accommodating to fish and, in short, to take further steps toward actually becoming a fish myself."
As he struggles to uncover what is closest to his heart, McGuane's recollections are permeated by nostalgia. This is a problem when McGuane mines his own past, giving detailed descriptions of inconsequential actions. This same nostalgia, however, enhances McGuane's dramatic stories of angler friends. One story in particular stands out, of a New Zealand father and son who enjoy a month-long fishing trip. Not long after the best month of their lives, the father passes away.
McGuane's nostalgia extends beyond the boundaries of friendship to inform the theme of the book itself. In The Longest Silence McGuane leaves us with a recurring symbol: that of an unhooked fish swimming to its freedom. The fish McGuane most covets is the permit, yet on the rare occasions that he catches one, he quickly lets it go. To the uninitiated, McGuane's and other fly-fishers' actions are seemingly unexplainable. Yet, as McGuane teaches us, that is the way it is with fly-fishing. It is a sport with sturdy emotional underpinnings, where the ability to recapture what has been lost is constantly replayed against the wisdom of letting go. (Brenn Jones)