It’s unusual for book reviewers to talk about themselves before talking about the work being reviewed, but without stooping to Thoreau’s convenient excuse, I’m going to do it anyway.
Before I knew anything about Montana, its rivers, mountains or writers, I was summarily booted from a library in Portland, Ore. for laughing out loud. For once, however, I was not engaged in any manner of boorish behavior. I was reading the first few pages of The River Why, penned by Oregon coast hippie David James Duncan.
Getting kicked out of a library for reading ranks second only to the time I was kicked out of an art gallery for eating an apple while viewing an exhibit on hunger. These are the kinds of ironies young people pray for before they figure out there’s got to be more to life than ironies, so I obeyed the hissing librarian, checked out the book, and read the whole thing in a day. Then I read it again. It was as though some older neighborhood kid had written a book about my part of town that turned out to be true. I instantly recognized descriptions of specific creeks, parks, forests, suburbs, even specific characters. It was a book about my home, its wild and paved-over places, its clueless commuter occupants and wisely-grounded natives. It was my good luck to read the book when I did.
A mere 15 years after my library eviction, I left Portland in search of another Portland more like it once was, a dull place to stop between Seattle and San Francisco. I had to. A half-million new people had sub-divided, strip-malled, and hi-tech industrialized their way into a place they had presumably moved to Portland to escape.
At any rate, I think I’ve found my place, and plan to stay here, reveling even in its anemic economy and its stealthy views of the spectacular mountains so near. The last of my good fortune is that David Duncan also lives here, now a novelist living in Lolo and already finished with a book that makes Western Montana seem a little more like a familiar neighborhood story. The point of all this first-person bombast is a disclaimer: I should warn any reader looking for an objective review of David James Duncan’s new book, My Story as Told by Water, to light out for different territory. This book is about my home, and I am no more capable of reviewing without prejudice a passionate and clear-eyed story about home than I am of speaking objectively of my wife in a turquoise sun dress.
Home, in this case, is the Columbia River watershed, all 260,000 square miles of it. From the outset it’s clear that Duncan’s obsession with the water portion of this vast watershed is what created the sharp-edged, passionate, uncompromising and occasionally hilarious tone in which he writes. It also allows him to slide with apparent grace into local waters, both figurative and literal.
Of particular interest to Missoula residents will be Duncan’s relationship with a dying Henry Bugbee, one of the city’s patriarchs of wilderness preservation and a former philosophy professor at the University of Montana. Duncan writes eloquently about Bugbee and the ideals for which he stood in an essay titled “Six Henry Stories.”
Notable as well are his recollections of the fight for the Blackfoot River in “The War for Norman’s River,” which effectively juxtaposes the great holiness of the river Norman McLean wrote about with the wholly obscene plan to put a gold mine at its headwaters.
Yet becoming hip to the local enviro scene isn’t what makes My Story such a fantastic read, nor, for that matter are my own coincidental geographical roots to the author’s. Reading Duncan, you get the sense of a man who at an early age was hooked by some of life’s Really Big Questions and wouldn’t let go. These are the kind of questions that strike after a long, beautiful day in a river or on a mountain; they gnaw and tickle at the same time, it’s something akin to being head over heels in love. Duncan’s beguiling, enticing prose in My Story paints a grateful picture of this mystery, where a vast, complex and awfully beautiful nature outside reflects a similar complexity of mind, heart and soul inside, a seldom-considered symbiosis at least partly common to us all, whether we’re two-legged, four legged, or finned. Of course it’s this kind of thinking that gets laughing people sent out of the library, packing out of town, redefining their home as a watershed rather than a zip code, and examining the possibility that humanity may yet win out over civilization.
Of the notion of home, I should rub our collective noses in a quote Duncan offers us from the dearly departed Henry Bugbee: “Let us wade right in and keep fishing where we are, with our fingertips touching the trembling line. It is just in the moment of the leap we both feel and see, when the trout is instantly born, entire, from the flowing river, that reality is knowingly defined.” A gracious and beautiful idea, not a bad moment to bend into metaphor, a hook on which to hang a life. That Duncan so openly charts his efforts to do just that in My Story as Told by Water at the very least makes a very fine read for the rest of us.
David James Duncan will be signing books at Chapter One Book Store in Hamilton on Aug. 22, and at Fact and Fiction in Missoula Aug. 28.