Liar’s Code

Growing Up Fishing

Author: Richard Chiappone

Photographer: 2016; Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

Pages: 220 pp

Price: Hardcover; $24.99

Nobody around now, including me, seems sure which year I refused Jim Butler’s invitation to review books in this column—probably 1997. Jim pressed. I changed my mind when he agreed I could write “essays about books.” Since that time I’ve read thousands of works to write about several hundred. Rightly and ironically, roughly half of these were collections of essays, a total of stand-alone chapters now exceeding 5,000, plus or minus.

Rough figures, but readers may presume many niche reviewers encounter common themes, some so often they take to drink or depend on medications. This never happens. Nor do any ever become callous, as inured to stimulation as, say, that aging professional lady working the corner of High Street and 12th.

Sorry, but I don’t know Lucinda, so all I can say is this: These themes are surprisingly many. If sometimes similar, every essay is individual. New themes appear, and authors’ perspectives evolve with age.

Take Richard Chiappone, for example. He is a two-time winner of the Robert Traver Award, and I first saw his work in that competition in Water of an Undetermined Depth. One of his stories, about a young man who found solace angling solo for chub in the dirty, dismal waters around Niagara, New York, disturbed and haunted me—a tale too reminiscent of boy years I spent trespassing golf-course ponds beside an Arizona elementary school from which I graduated with scars on my hands and above both eyes.

Fishing through dark times is one of our literature’s themes, more common now that so many of us have aged. But if I remember correctly, Chiappone’s rendition reflected faint light from his trashed-but-best-I’ve-got environ and stared away to brighter horizons.

In Liar’s Code, Growing Up Fishing, the author finds many of these, fishing beneath skies from his home in Alaska to Australia. Serious subjects appear in these 18 pieces, including mourning a daughter and the loss of dear waters. But from early on, even when the author remembers childhood, it’s not just bullies and beatings he recalls but transporting fishing dreams that here become realities, sources of excitement and laughter he’s determined to share.

That he does this well makes Liars a pleasure. A quick cull from back-jacket testimonials finds Chiappone described as “pithy but never precious,” “insightful” (twice), “poignant” and “bittersweet.” But he is also “humorous,” a storyteller whose “arched eyebrow” observations “crack me up.”

Funny, in short. And, by my read, happy a lot of the time. Older, aching, constructed partly of titanium and often medicated, the author remains obsessed with fishing and simply delighted this is true. The chub fisher who quit education, married and spawned early—and, like his own father, worked 30 years in trades to support a family—ends up teaching college in Alaska, living near a salmon stream, and traveling to and writing about exotic locales.

Speaking of themes again: One appearing more often today is Permit Madness Syndrome (PMS), which will someday appear in The Diagnostic Statistical Manual (Sixth Edition). Check the “Fly-fishing Appendix,” under Axis III, “Tragic Angler Personality Disorders.”

Chiappone’s case is one for that book. Like other semi- or absolutely futile pursuits—say, for a 20-pound Atlantic salmon from public waters, chupacabra or for God’s sake a decent tomato, anywhere—manic excitement is soon subsumed by frustration, devolving over years into the galaxy of PMS symptoms. Failures to see fish tails at venues A through X—Ascension Bay to Belize and on to Xcalak, Yucatan—reveal “Hysterical Fish-spotting Blindness” (Rule Out: Syphilis, Stage III). Blowing casts in spectacular fashion (see Axis II, Panic Disorder) leave him humiliated, wallowing through an exogenous depression replete with recurring dreams recalling a guide’s cry: “Señor! That was the most worst cast of the whole week!” To that add “monster Visa bills” acquired while traveling (Rule Out Bipolar Disorder, Type I); a Job-worthy loss of Faith; “Tantulus Casting Cramps”; and, sadly, when others succeed, Permit Envy.

In Chapter 14, “Adios Señor Permit,” Chiappone leads us to believe he’s put all this behind. “I’m a fairly competent trout angler . . . who catches salmon on flies . . . steelhead with some regularity, a species responsible for gray hairs on the heads of much better anglers. . . . So why would I travel half-way to the equator to be humiliated by permit? There are probably drugs that produce the same cycle of momentary excitement and subsequent self-loathing that permit fishing does, and I don’t do those either.”

Denial. Classic.

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Seth Norman
About Seth Norman 15 Articles
Seth Norman lives in Washington State. He’s the Books columnist for Fly Rod& Reel, and has written a few of his own, including Meanderings of a Fly Fisherman/.

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