Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A River Runs Through It : Man, Nature and the Art of Fly Fishing

Editors Warning: This is one of the manlier books we’ve ever reviewed at The Literate Man so if you’re not ready for a blast of testosterone handle with care; side effects may include a sprouting of chest hair, deepening of voice and referring to women as subordinate and marginal plot devices.  But if you’re not the type of reader frightened off by such things, a beautiful story and some mesmerizing writing lays ahead.

A River Runs through It is a haunting tale of sorrow and regret as the author, at the age of 71, attempts to make sense of the painful and complex relationship with his gifted, but troubled, brother.  He begins with the opening sentence, “In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing” and he ends with this: “I am haunted by waters.”  In between these two poetic bookends lies a treasure of manly and moving prose.  There’s nothing sentimental in his powerful words and the poignancy of the writing is delicately and expertly balanced against the ruggedness of the characters.
Set in Northwestern Montana during the early decades of the 20th century, when the Wild West was still alive, and bold and cavalier men carved their existence out of the mountains around them, Maclean and his brother grow up Presbyterians and fisherman; not necessarily in that order.  Their relationship was a volatile one, as brotherhood can be, and there’s an incurable lament in the author’s tone as he re-examines their relationship, their adventures, and the unspoken words between them.
A River Runs Through It is also a love letter to the art of fly fishing.  If you’re an aficionado of the sport, Maclean’s ode to his family’s pastime and passion will hypnotize you.  There may be no more beautiful writing about fishing anywhere in literature.  The care he takes to describe the detail and joy of the sport, and above all, the reverence, seemingly explains man and nature in such pure and simple terms, that if Maclean was even half as good a fisherman as he was a writer, than he was truly a master of the fly-rod.  His skillful words tease out the artistry of everyday life and the in-the-moment perfections of an imperfect world.  And he makes you feel like life is a bit fuller with a fly-rod in your hand.
The obvious comparison to Hemmingway is unavoidable.  From the onset, the economic and minimalistic writing style, as well as the subject matter, and aforementioned chauvinistic tones are abundantly evident.  But Maclean, using the same methods and tools, achieves an intimacy that we rarely, if ever, find in Hemmingway’s writing.  And this is no small feat.  The writing is Spartan at times but rings with a clarity and poignancy that is rarely achieved in this –or any- genre of novel.
Originally published as part of a three story collection, and spanning 161(tiny) pages, A River Runs Through It is a novella of extraordinary quality.  For the book collector/fishing enthusiast, we suggest the Pennyroyal Press hardcover edition with wood carved lithographs by Barry Moser. It’s a handsome book that includes a dozen exquisite imprints of flies, fishing scenes and the author.  This book is one of our favorites, and certainly one that every literate man should have on his bookshelf.


  1. My husband, who illustrated the edition that you recommend, has long been after me to read this book. Maybe one of these days I will, but I read The River Why and that might be enough for fly-fishing books for me for a lifetime. :)

    It's a very interesting publication story, too, and worth looking up if you don't know already.

    1. it seems that your husband is not only a talented artist, but also has good taste in books! thanks for the recomendation, we'll check it out. tell your husband to keep up the good work and thanks for checking out The Literate Man.

  2. I've a friend that would probably find this interesting, but then he'd have to put his rod down first.