Trash Fish: A Life
176 pages, $14.95
People evolved from fish, not monkeys. Humans find their rapture in water, not treetops. We don’t fling our poo; we flush it downriver. We spend hours transfixed with the project of possessing fish, and taking their flesh into our flesh, or freeing them (after establishing dominion, with hooks, of course). Who do you know who hunts monkeys?
Even in the realm of literature, the annals of animal-associative autobiography contain very few Monkey-Man memoirs compared to the number of authors who get hung up on the submerged stump of Fishing-As-Some-Sort-Of-Metaphor-For-Life.
Greg Keeler is no monkey. He’s a professor of English at Montana State University in Bozeman, an indiscriminate fisherman as comfortable in the company of dog food and paddlefish as dry flies and rainbows, and a very funny man. He’s done some rambling and dated some memorable women, including one named Hemingway. He’s hung out with some name-brand poets, namely Gary Snyder. And he’s flirted with minor fame as some sort of fishing commentator/novelty songster.
He’s apparently raised some kids, though he writes about them hardly at all in Trash Fish, for which they must be thankful. He also writes sparingly about his academic life and his writing work, to which discretion he probably owes his continued employment. The most notable thing that he does write about, finally, when he isn’t trying ( usually successfully) to be cute, is that he lost his first wife when he made it clear he’d rather be fishing, and abandoned his long-term second when her illness and his midlife crisis butted heads. He went back to her years later, when he could finally see what a heel he was being. He does not spare his wife’s humiliations in wanting him—for some reason—back. The self-portrait starts to turn unexpectedly rancid right about here. And even when Keeler circles this brief book back to his renewed love for the woman he calls The Bunny, an off taste remains.
What does any of this have to do with fishing? Seen through Keeler’s eyes, everything has to do with fishing, and a lot of it—from dialing up a lake full of fish by cranking a charge through telephone wires to bowfishing for giant goldfish—isn’t pretty. Keeler identifies his “totemic spirit” animal early on: a sucker-faced carp. By the end, few readers will find fault with the association. Keeler the character—especially the third-person version he retreats to when the going gets rough—is kind of a dick.
And that, strange as it may seem, turns out to be Trash Fish’s saving grace. Whatever he may have left out—and one would love to discuss the book with locals at a good bar in Bozeman or Livingston—Keeler does not indulge the folly of trying to pawn himself off as a thematically meaningful—never mind exemplary—man. Trash Fish: A Life reads like real life all right. Messed-up, crap-shot, and unredeemed.
So how do you judge a memoir by a guy who—nothing personal—hasn’t really done anything exceptional, and spends too much of his stage-time acting unsympathetically? One way would be to ask: Is it funny? Is it honest enough to make a reader wonder why she’s bothering with this ass-clown? Does it not presume too much of your time?
In Keeler’s case the answers are yes, quite; yes indeed; and no, it doesn’t—a collection of qualities that mostly excuses a small host of other sins, including the fact that several of the longer chapters, up to four pages, are reprints of, and introduced as, previously published essays and articles from publications like Big Sky Journal. Their inexplicable inclusion completely screws up the book’s otherwise carefully crafted tone.
The shoehorned-in filler also causes Keeler to repeat an anecdote about how he and fellow writer/fisherman Richard Brautigan once thought about trying to skirt a Bozeman law restricting urban-stream fishing to kids 12 and under by constructing cardboard cut-outs of children to hide behind while they fished. In both tellings, the adventure aborts in a bottle of George Dickel; in its first appearance, it’s a pretty good yarn.
Otherwise Keeler is generally pleasant company, for the reader at least—a big silly hep-cat galoot good for regular blasts of lyrical writing, wry poetry, appealingly dry punchlines and occasional flashes of the sort of bittersweet comic pathos that was the specialty of Brautigan, about whom Keller has already written a book, Waltzing with the Captain.
But behind Keeler’s shaggy-dog loser-humor and the uncomfortable (apparent) honesty of his brutal (yet curiously amused) self-assessment, Trash Fish is ultimately memoir by anecdote, a trotline of snappy titles and highly polished set pieces, brave in its way, and definitely barbed, but too short, a little shallow, and finally self-conscious.
“Damn, I’m starting to make shit up so I’ll sound deep,” he warns on page 11, retreating immediately, and setting the stage for the cleverly couched self-deprecations to come. “Back to the pond.”
And then off he stumbles, rod in hand, torturing animals and traumatizing women, completely in love with the sound of his own voice.