By Ian Frazier
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 164pp, $20
If a cargo helicopter were to drop Moby-Dick into a mountain stream, the disturbance would be only a bit more overwhelming than the tidal wave of fly-fishing books that started in 1992. That year, Brad Pitt cast a fly on what was purportedly Montana's Blackfoot River, and Hollywood's version of A River Runs Through It hooked thousands on fly fishing. Many of the new books were quite good; a few, top-shelf.
Add to the latter category Ian Frazier's The Fish's Eye: Essays About Angling and the Outdoors, a collection of pieces from magazines including Outside and Sports Afield. This is not just a fly-fishing book, though. And that's good, since some of us old-timers aren't just fly-fishermen but fishermen-fishermen, known to cast a worm, minnow, or plastic Jitterbug should the situation or mood warrant. Truth is, among other hardball techniques, I used to snag suckers with a treble hook--and to this day, when I'm bragging about a catch, my kid brother, Andy, invariably asks whether I got 'em with a cherry bomb.
Frazier, a New Yorker writer and author of several books, including Great Plains, is at his best here in a 1982 profile of the late Jim Deren, who ran a tackle shop near Grand Central Terminal. Pure New Yorkese--"We've had every kind of customer, from the bloated bondholder to the lowliest form of human life"--is crafted into a piece that puts us right into the cramped little store, much the way that Ernest Hemingway six decades earlier put the reader onto the bank of the "Big Two-Hearted River"--the standard by which I judge fishing literature.
The author's river to dwell upon, described in the next piece, is the boulder-strewn west branch of the Ausable in the Adirondacks, where, like Frazier, I have had the pleasure of catching a good trout on, yes, an Ausable Wulff fly. It can be a strong, formidable river, lethally rather than comically slippery. Here's how Frazier distills its rocky slickness: "Tea-colored water pours steadily over lips as smooth as subway stairs."
Each essay offers similar tidbits. After Frazier releases a striped bass at a New York City beach, "a woman jogger doing leg-stretching exercises on the fence looked at me unsmiling, as if I were a fish abuser." On a streamside lunch break, he watches as "a watersnake zigzagged fast across the surface, in what looked like a shoelacing race."
Not all of Frazier's entries are keepers--in fact, the book's first two are padding. Dating from the '70s, these New Journalism-influenced stream-of-dialogue mood pieces about fishing in New York City waters are mercifully short, even with the Spanish terms translated. Caramba!
For a fisherman, Frazier seems honest. He admits that much of the sense of place is initially lost on him: "I'm not really there until I catch a fish." Also, he likes catching tiddlers. In expounding on this, he explains an essential aspect of fish--and hence fishing: "I've taken just-caught little fish and put them in the hands of children watching me from the bank, and the fish gyrate and writhe and flop their way instantly from the hands back to the water, not so much a living thing as the force that makes things live." Hemingway, you have company on my top shelf. By Tim Belknap