The genre of literature labeled “coffee table book” is generally not lauded for its insight on a given topic, unless the topic is crazy hubcap sculptures of the southwest or famous cigars of the West Wing. Once in a blue moon, whiling away the hours at the dentist’s office or at a Sunday brunch, you’ll luck into an Ansel Adams or Edward S. Curtis compilation that pushes the envelope of a publishing category designated to promote small talk, faint praise notwithstanding. If, however, the topic is fly-fishing, the writer is Tom McGuane, and the black-and-white photos are composed by Charles Lindsay, nothing in the way of faint praise is necessary. McGuane and Lindsay have teamed up to provide not only a bold new standard in coffee table entertainment, but a damn fine treatise on the vagaries of trout, rivers, and the natural world, in a joint effort published last month entitled Upstream.
First, the prose: McGuane, a pioneer of the now-popular Montana career path “rancher-novelist,” possesses one or two qualities that Zane Grey, or for that matter Ted Turner, do not. One of these qualities is an original, wry and occasionally outlandish literary voice that when applied to the natural world results in insightful, light-hearted yet ethereal sentences like this: “Once when I discovered a cottonwood growing out of an old Indian antelope blind, it was a simple matter to recognize the tree was the Indian and that no antelope anxious to avoid observation would rest in its shade, though antelope, floating over the prairie like clouds are themselves a form of shade and perhaps need no other form of it. But I do.”
There are dozens of gems like that from Upstream; in the process of discovering them, you also uncover something that’s lacking in most of what’s been written about fishing: a personal, long-standing and easy-going intimacy with familiar rivers and landscapes, a relationship McGuane has nurtured over 30 years of hunting, ranching and fishing on and around his place near Livingston. Fortunately for McGuane, the photos offered by Lindsay call attention to this kind of elusive, enviable intimacy. There are no grinning fishermen posed adoringly with their catch. Instead, a portrait of the mostly non-human life of a river is depicted, down to the minutiae of insects after a hatch, the apposition of patterns in a river’s current, the congruence of the whorl of trunk in a long-dead ponderosa with an eddy behind a mid-stream boulder, and the sub-aquatic sunlight catching the opaque image of an angler’s fly, a trout’s-eye view.
From a book buyer’s view, the drawback to Upstream is cost. At $40, perhaps only those with really nice coffee tables will throw down for this one. But on rainy days when the river’s blown, or at one of those awkward social events where all the guests are sitting on their hands on the leather sofa, any trout or photography nerds sipping lattes around that table will be glad you did.
In the introduction to his latest work, Stephen Ambrose asks himself: Why does the world need another book about the transcontinental railroad? After all, tomes have been written on the subject of the Union Pacific and the men—like Thomas “Doc” Durant, Oliver Ames and his brother Senator Oakes Ames, the shovel magnate—who ran that company into the greatest financial scandals of an age plagued by financial scandals. Volumes have detailed the manipulative shenanigans of the so-called Big Four of the Central Pacific—Collis Huntington (of the library fame), Leland Stanford (the school), Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker. Just last year I reviewed David Haward Bain’s 800-page opus, Empire Express, which was the fruit of 14 years of research and treated the subject so exhaustively that its bibliography ran to 19 pages in the smallest font I had ever seen.
Ambrose himself was unconvinced about the necessity of such a work, despite his editor’s insistence on the subject. After reading the important works on the railroad, he decided: “How it was done is my subject. Why plays a role, of course, along with financing and the political argument, but how is the theme.”
To anyone familiar with Ambrose’s mastery of the popular narrative history, his choice of the means as his message is hardly surprising. Since the book is a light 416 pages, it rolls along telling the perennially fascinating story Ambrose calls “the greatest achievement of the American people in the nineteenth century”—after, presumably, winning the Civil War and abolishing slavery.
For what it’s worth, Ambrose does a fine job of detailing the lives of the workers. He actually names the eight-man Irish rail-laying team that laid a record 10 miles of track in one day. In order to put down 3,520 rails, each man in the team lifted 125 tons of iron that day. They moved track at a rate of almost one mile an hour—or 240 feet every 75 seconds—they even took a leisurely hour for lunch.
Ambrose is a popular historian in part because his analysis can just as well incorporate Lewis and Clark as e-mail, and his writing style is a far cry from the antiquarian and obtuse textbook style. But since both readability and comprehensiveness are not often encountered together, some of the offhanded analyses of interesting characters were disappointing. For example, Ambrose says of the eccentric Dr. Thomas Durant: “Durant wanted to get started yesterday.” Or the final estimation of his character: “He had made a lot of mistakes, done lots of things wrong, but this must be said of Doc; without him, don’t ask me how they would have built the Union Pacific in so short a time.”
Ambrose’s skill does lie in relating events of the past with pertinent analogies that always remind me of the strange world encountered in history. In reference to the hyperbole surrounding the railroad reflected in the book’s title, Ambrose reminds us of that. “A man whose birthday was in 1829 or earlier had been born into a world in which President Andrew Jackson moved no faster than Julius Caesar,” he writes, “a world in which no thought or information could be transmitted any faster than in Alexander the Great’s time.”
Jim Harrison’s early subjects were usually wonderfully confused young men, pure of intent and heart, brains addled with lust for women and wine, their searches for meaning derailed by the distractions of youth. But as the author has aged, so have his confused boys become slightly less bewildered men, still easily dazed by glimpses of a girl’s underwear, yet more likely to perceive the full nature of their mistakes. In his new book of novellas, The Beast God Forgot to Invent, Harrison continues to simplify his plots to that single theme.
Here, Harrison’s aging men confront their pasts with an eye to the few years left them. The last of the trio, “I Forgot to Go to Spain,” is standard Harrison fare, the protagonist a middle-aged man reflecting on his mistakes and frailties, taking his first steps in what he hopes is a better direction. The writer of three dozen commercially successful and utterly vapid biographies becomes briefly obsessed with his first and only marriage 30 years after the fact, a venture that lasted nine days, until on Day Eight he was caught committing adultery on a fire escape in an alcohol-induced haze. Preparing to meet his ex after reading about her in an airline travel magazine propels him to overcome the inertia that has dominated his life (sending him to the loony bin once or twice), and to begin shedding three decades of excess baggage.
Brown Dog, meanwhile, is the most autobiographical of Harrison’s voices, and the author continues B.D.’s adventures in the middle story, “Westward Ho.” In this episode, B.D., a Michigan woodsman, lands in the alien world of Los Angeles, seeking a stolen bearskin rug, an article of heavy medicine. He finds a botanical garden to sleep in and is eyeing the ornamental carp for dinner when he stumbles into a job as driver for Bob, an alcoholic screenwriter. B.D. and Bob have deeply rooted connections through the universal experiences of DUIs and beautiful but treacherous women. Brown Dog is always an effortless read and, one suspects, an easy make for Harrison, a way to let off the steam built from too much thinking about The Profound.
But it is that enormous effort Harrison puts into the first novella in the book, “The Beast God Forgot to Invent,” which makes it a first-rate piece of fiction. Joe is a man who, because of an accidental meeting of motorcycle and beech tree, cannot retain the faces of those he meets. Thus social relations are always nearly new to him, passions constantly renewed. Like animals and small children, Joe is completely without artifice. But he is, to a degree, aware of his unique perspective and eager to share his revelations with friends. It is the privilege of those like him, hurled from our culture by injuries physical or otherwise, to see the nature of our lives most clearly. The chance to contemplate the world from this angle is the rare gift Joe gives to his friends, his nominal caretakers.
In all three novellas, Harrison uses his style of storytelling to define the shortcomings of modern culture without being overly polemical. At a time when most books heralded by critics are just good trash, The Beast God Forgot to Invent finely expresses the acute sense of joy and pain involved in the honest struggle for a well-lived life.