The 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)
Read an Excerpt
It was getting dark. I didn't have a fish. The rises kept appearing. I kept casting and never got a take. There is a metallic loss of light one feels when it is all over. You press to the end but it's kaput. I left in blackness. A warm wind came up and gave the mosquitoes new hope. I lit a cigar to keep them out of my face and trudged through the forms of the big cedars along the stream, trying not to fall. I snagged my suspenders on a bramble and snapped myself. The moon was full and I was thinking about the TV.
The next evening I was back earlier. This time I crawled to the edge of the pond with the light at my back and had a good look. The first thing I saw was the rises, as many as the night before. I remembered how they had failed to materialize then and checked my excitement. As I watched, I caught a rise at the moment it opened, then saw the fish drop beneath the ring and continue cruising until it was beyond my view. The next rise I caught, I saw another cruiser, moving immediately away from the place of the rise and looking for another insect. I began to realize my error of the night before. These were cruising fish, waiting for something to pass through their observation lane. There were a good number of them traveling about the pond, hunting for food.
I retreated from my place beside the pond, circled around below the dam and waded into my position of the night before. I tied on another Adams, this time a rather large one. I cast it straight out into the middle of the pond and let it lie.
Rises continued to happen, picking up a little as evening advanced and the cedar waxwings returned to wait, like me, for the hatch. My Adams floated in place, clearlyvisible, and I could see the curves of my leader in the surface skin of the water. I waited for a trying length of time. I had to see my theory through because, like many a simpleminded sportsman, I see myself as a problem solver.
The fly dropped out of sight. I didn't respond until the ring had already started to spread, and I lifted the rod and felt the fish. The trout darted off in a half-dozen chugging didoes in the dark water over drowned leaves. I landed him a moment later, a brook trout of a solid pound. I studied him a moment and thought what a bright, lissome, perfect fish this little American char is.
Brook trout are cheerfully colored in deep reds, grays, and blues, with ivory leading edges and deep moony spots on their fins. They are called squaretails elsewhere, after the clear graphics of their profiles. I reached for my Adams and felt the small teeth roughen the first knuckles of my thumb and forefinger. Then I let him go. He sank to the leaves at my feet, thought for a minute, and made off.
I rinsed the fly carefully. That long float required a well-dried fly. Then I false-cast the fly a moment to dry it, applied some Mucilin dressing, which I kept smeared on the back of my left hand, and cast again. This time I stared at the fly for ten or fifteen minutes, long enough to notice the Adams changing its waterline. But then it sank suddenly and I had another fish.
Since casting was nearly eliminated from this episode, the fishing did not seem fast. But at the end of a couple of hours, I had taken seven fish. The takers were all solid, confident, and deep. I released all the fish, and by the time I'd hiked out of the boggy forest that night, I could feel glory all around me.
One might say, pragmatically, that in still or nearly still waters, feeding trout cruise; and that in streams and rivers they tend to take a feeding lane and watch a panel of moving water overhead, elevating to eat when something passes; and that the repeated rises of a holding trout in a stream are as unlike the disparate rises of my beaver pond as they are unlike the deep glintings of nymphing trout. But the fact is, these episodes are remembered as complete dramatic entities, whose real function, finally, is to be savored. It is fine, of course, to escalate them toward further successes. But in the end, angling has nothing whatsoever to do with success.
Nevertheless, by the time the aforementioned nymphing trout had been met and dealt with, I had come to think of myself as a pretty smart fisherman. I had a six-cylinder black Ford, a mahogany tackle box, two split-cane rods, and Adamses in eight sizes. I had cheap, clean lodgings within quick reach of the Pigeon, Black, and Sturgeon rivers, where I ate decently prepared food with the owner, one or two other fishermen, and perhaps a young salesman with a line of practical shoes and a Ford like mine.
From here, I'd pick a stretch of the Pigeon or the Black for the early fishing, wade the oxbow between the railroad bridges on the Sturgeon in the afternoon. Then, in the evening, I'd head for a wooden bridge over the Sturgeon near Wolverine.
Below the bridge was a large pool deeply surrounded by brush and inhabited by nearly nocturnal brown trout. A sandy bottom shelved off into the undercut banks and it was a rarity to find a feeding fish here in the daytime. But shortly after dinnertime in the summer, when the hatches seemed to come, the trout would venture out into the open pool and feed with greater boldness.
I stood on the bridge and rigged my rod with a relatively short, heavy leader. The fish were not leader-shy this late. I tied on a fly known locally as a "caddis," though it was anything but an actual caddis. This was a huge, four-winged fly with a crosshatched deerhair body. Lying in your open hand, it covered the palm, and when cast, its wings made a turbulent noise like the sound of a bat passing your ear.
The trout liked it real well. What I appreciated was that I could fish from this wooden bridge in the black of night without fear of falling in a hole, filling my waders, and passing on. I'd cast that big baby until two or three in the morning, guessing at the rate at which I should retrieve to keep up with the fly backing down on the current toward me. I had to strike by sound every rise I heard. Five out of six rises I struck would just snatch the fly and line into a heap at my feet. But that one out of six would be solid to a trout, and some of those trout were big by my small-stream standards.
Finally, something would end the fishing -- an especially baleful frog in the swamp, a screech owl or a train a couple of miles away -- and I'd reel up for the evening. I'd take my trout and lay them out in the headlights of the Ford and think how sweet it was. Then I'd clean them with my pocketknife, slitting them to the vent, separating the gills at the point of jaw and shucking those fastidious entrails. I'd run out the black blood along the spine with my thumbnail so it wouldn't change their flavor, restack them in the creel, and head back to my lodgings.