Jeff Hull claims he’s not showing off, but he really is. Standing on the bank of a pond with his friend Walker, Hull begins pulling bluegills out with every cast. Then he lets loose, backhanding and roll-casting his line clear across the pond, hitting the open patches of water amid tangles of weeds. Walker can’t get enough of this. He whoops it up the entire time. The two men are patients in the psychiatric unit at the Menninger Clinic in Kansas and Hull’s showmanship provides them with the beginnings of a way out of the suicidal depression that brought each of them to the ward.
Other patients dig the show, too. Architects, computer programmers, professors and entrepreneurs—“all previously highly functional people” who had “stepped perilously close to killing [themselves]”—gather on the bank to smoke cigarettes and cheer Hull on. The scene, narrated with equal parts redemptive joy and dispassionate self-awareness, is just one of the many examples in Streams of Consciousness: Hip-Deep Reflections from the River of Life of Hull’s deft touch. Reading the 16 first-person essays in the volume leaves little doubt that this man can fish. He’s also a fine writer.
The moment discussed above comes from “Rorschach Bluegill,” which is the strongest piece in this expertly-crafted, well-balanced collection. With enviable composure, Hull recounts his near suicide and then finds an extended metaphor to convey his melancholy to the reader. He tells of a time his friends hooked a 9-foot mako shark and after fighting it for three hours decided to kill the beast by dragging it backward until it drowned. Hull writes, “I was not aboard for this trip, but I think about that mako, exhausted, played out, the beautiful swimmer dragging backward through the blue ocean, choking in the medium of its vitality . . . I think a major depression must feel just like that drowning shark.”
In “Third Spaces,” Hull writes about the death of his brother Chris at age 33 with a gutsy clinical precision that makes plain how difficult it is to watch a loved one suffer. The essay moves seamlessly between two fishing trips to the Tuamotus—a series of islands to the northeast of Tahiti—and Chris’ bedside vigil. Hull conjures empathy for his sick brother not by going into a swoon, but rather by writing frankly about Chris’ pain. Describing the aftermath of one operation, he explains, “A small organism called Pseudomonas. . . cut loose and bloomed wildly in Chris. He developed mucositis, a condition in which the mucous membranes surrounding his organs and lining his nose and mouth began to disintegrate. He coughed up bloody lumps of his esophagus.” Meanwhile, the descriptive prose from the South Pacific—mahi-mahi that are “yellow like mustard plugged in;” a moray eel “as thick as my calf, its knotty head leading flanks so fluid it seemed as if the animal were mostly made of water”—shows how nature regenerates an ailing spirit.
As any writer who’s taken fishing as his subject must, Hull can evoke a landscape (or a seascape), but he often surprises by downplaying his surroundings. In “Off the Land,” Hull is anything but a Romantic poet when he refers to the silted and “fudgey” waters of Ohio’s rivers and creeks. Portraying one decidedly non-sylvan location teeming with white bass, Hull writes, “Our spot was not far from County Road 17, only a short way through the woods. People on the road could probably glimpse the colors of our clothing in gaps through the trees, if they looked. The high school athletic director’s house was only a few hundred yards away.” The humor evidenced by the allusion to the A.D. often finds its way into Hull’s descriptions of his fishing partners. From his buddy Adams, Hull notes, “I learned how not to run a wooden drift boat into a bridge abutment, although this was a lesson Adams apparently hadn’t mastered before teaching it to me.”
The only recurring weakness among these essays is Hull’s tendency to moralize a bit at the end. He’ll have a good riff going and then he’ll strike up the organ when he closes it out. For example, in “Knots,” an otherwise delightfully odd essay about, among many things, Lord Kelvin’s take on the universe and the history of knots dating back to 7200 BCE, Hull finishes with an extended lament on greed and the destruction of the Great West. No self-respecting registered Democrat would disagree with any of this, but the prose here, and in other moments like it, is oppressive and stale. And the arguments are not new. An essayist may feel the need to venture from his subject to make some broader, more socially expansive claims. I just prefer the fish stories and the blend of candor, tact and insight with which Hull discusses his personal life.
This writer certainly knows the best spots to fish the world over. But he knows a lot more than that, too. The adventure, introspection, exuberance and sadness in these essays will make readers forget time and drift along, like any content fisher, and the surprises will enliven like a quick tug on the line. No local reader, fishing enthusiast or not, would be wise to let this one get away.
Jeff Hull reads from and signs copies of Streams of Consciousness Friday, March 9, at Fact & Fiction at 7 PM.