BROOK TROUT AND THE WRITING LIFE
By Craig Nova
Lyons. 111 pp. $20
By Jan Zita Grover
Graywolf. 231 pp. Paperback, $14
Reviewed by Chris Bolgiano
What motivates people to stand for hours in cold water trying to fool fish into biting a hook tied to a line tied to a stick? Each of these books has a different answer, although they start out from the same unusual place: They were written by authors who taught themselves to fish as adults, attracted to it in part by the voluminous body of literature that fishing has inspired, especially fly fishing. Like hunting, fishing is usually transmitted through the generations by fathers teaching their children. Fathers lurk like Freudian lunkers in both books, but not because they taught their offspring to fish. Instead, both Craig Nova and Jan Grover rejected aspects of their fathers' personalities in making serious, life-enhancing commitments in early adulthood and middle age, respectively, to pursue fish.
Craig Nova's Brook Trout and the Writing Life is a memoir of finding his voice as a writer, a process in which brook trout often served as a catalyst for crystallizing his ideas. A beautiful and delicious fish native to the wildest and cleanest of North American waters, the brooky arches out of pristine creeks to form Nova's bridge to nature, the world's and his own. While living in New York City, Nova met the woman he would later marry, who took him to her family summering place near the Delaware River. Here, in his late twenties, he caught his first brook trout. Eventually he moved to that house, began a family, then moved with them to Vermont. He published first one novel, then nearly a dozen more.
Through it all, he fished. And he tells . . . well, fishermen's stories, like the one in which landing a big fish cured a man's stammering. But this is hardly a conventional fishing tale, and the size of the fish -- or even whether one is caught -- is mostly beside the point. Consciously rejecting his father's need to control, Nova chose fishing as a way to become a participant in the natural world. What matters most to him is the "connection between things . . . The events of my life and brook trout often meet at the line of demarcation between the world of fish and the world of the fisherman, between the seen and the unseen." When he realizes, for example, that hawks flying on a clear day cast moving shadows that frighten fish away from rising to a lure, Nova examines his past and finds moving shadows that prefigured trouble. As he comes to recognize connections, he matures as a writer and a human being. He shows how a natural setting can be imbued with meaning through memory, how remembered sounds and sights coalesce into tableaux of emotion. His prose evokes shimmering moments in his life, like moonlight on a riffle.
Jan Grover casts her net for a different kind of catch in Northern Waters. Her book is not really a memoir, although it does record the past six years of her life as she moved from being a battler of AIDS in San Francisco to a freelance writer in Minnesota. Rather, it's an exploration of fishing as a means of learning not only about herself but also about the place in which she lives. As she becomes acquainted with the waters that feed Lake Superior, Grover finds that "streams are not places of escape. They speak in their own terms to the ongoing history of their place, and on most of the streams I know, that history has not been very pretty." Grover courageously confronts our ugly heritage of rapine and destruction, but moves beyond it to celebrate resilience, survival and the increasing momentum for restoration.
In 20 chapters that each deal with some aspect of fish and their life in the waters around Duluth, Grover's unusual perspective illuminates the murky depths of a passion for fishing. She writes that "the longer you watch stream fish, the more individual they become" and proves it in a chapter that makes the personality of "one immense, dying Kamloops" as unique as her own. Watching rather than catching fish is her major preoccupation, but throwing a line out is the way to make visible the particular currents that run in any given stretch. Eventually she achieves the Zen of fishing: throwing a line into waters that she knows hold no fish.
Grover rejects the cold intellectualism of her father by immersing herself in the sensual world of nature, and her prose is appropriately sensuous. Listening hard while fishing at night makes her "ears feel as if they are growing, covering my head, swiveling like fleshy dishes in the dark." Each fishing trip yields captivating vignettes of culture, fish and human, from the fate of the huge lake sturgeon that were relentlessly harvested for isinglass to the eating habits of the vampirish lamprey to which she offered a finger. Fellow fishermen are equally subject to her observation, and although she values the camaraderie she feels among them, she doesn't hesitate to question such sacred cows of recreational fishing as state hatcheries.
Grover's fish stories animate the watery landscape with creatures that are magnificent and powerful and deserving of respect. By the time she describes her defense of a salmon from stoning by a small boy -- even though, as the child perplexedly pointed out, "it's already dead" -- you understand why, and cheer her on. Most of all, she shows how faithful attendance at a single place can teach complexity, patience, humility and joy, a lesson our transient society has mostly forgotten. Both books offer lessons that far transcend the simple act of fishing.
Chris Bolgiano is the author of the prize-winning book "The Appalachian Forest, A Search for Roots and Renewal."