Pale Morning Done

Pale Morning Done

A fine fly-fishing novel; Sierra Madre trout; and split-cane cinema

  • By: Seth Norman
Pale Morning Done By Jeff Hull (The Lyons Press: 2005; 888-249-7586; www.lyonspress.com) 345 pp.; trade paperback; $14.95 However rich the literature of our sport, the number of popular mainstream novels in which fly-fishing plays an integral part is…well, name five if you can. More have been attempted, but it's rare you get a Ninety-two in the Shade or anything of that caliber. Enter Jeff Hull's Pale Morning Done, a book that will be read and reviewed by more non-anglers than anything since A River Runs Through It.Or so it will be, if Hull gets a fair shake. Artfully crafted, Pale succeeds at what good fiction sets out to do, drawing us into the lives of people who matter to each other, then subjecting them to believable challenges that force them-and us-to examine the tangled webs we weave. Hull sustains our care about characters and conflicts to an end that works because things change. Ideally including the reader, at one level or another. That said, there's plenty of fly-fishing. Pale is set in western Montana, where an ex-guide named Marshall is building a spring-creek, pay-to-play destination on his wealthy father's idle-rich ranch. At 32 Marshall is still coming of age, vague around the edges, naave but well-intentioned, fiercely committed between moments of doubt-about his project, his feelings for two women, himself, the future… Marshall's development itself provokes Big Money/Big Sky conflicts: water rights, ranching and real-estate development, whirling disease and the machinations of a sport that can become a bare-knuckle business. Most of his allies and antagonists make their living in or around fly-fishing, as outfitters and guides or guide wannabes, shop staff and owners. Competitors as often as colleagues, their interactions prove that manners on crowded rivers don't always resemble Mayberry, especially when some players are suspect, or even suspects; and suggest that in today's New West a legal staff is often more important as a stick to help you wade. Then there's the Klingman family, Marshall's rancher neighbors, a complex clan whose members torment and teach him, beat and bed him, and ultimately hold his fate in their hands. The people and trials ring true: sport, business and environmental "issues" are tightly woven into friendships, animosities and romances, each of them threatened or strengthened by history, ambition and greed, love and jealously, dreams and unrealized hopes. Ah, but the heart is a lonely fisher, and the most difficult of motives to fathom can be your own. Take Molly, for example, a strong, quiet type and true friend, who suspects her feelings for Marshall might be leading her to last-ditch tactics that may not end well for anybody. "If that were, on some level, an operative factor, what did it say about her? She refused to see herself as the manipulative type-that looped back to intent. The difference between hypocrisy and unresolved contradiction was what you did on purpose, wasn't it? She'd been frustrated, maybe. Confused. Errant. Yes, what she could say for sure was some mistakes were made… it seemed to Molly that things had gone on too long, lines had been crossed. It seemed like, for a long time, those lines hadn't much mattered, but now they were going to. Maybe she even wanted them too." All this good Molly considers. And yet, a moment later, she inadvertently goads Marshall and his best friend into a small act of sabotage that will have brain-damaging consequences. Hull's descriptions of land and water will put you there, right there. But his dialogue also provides dramatic topography, exchanges in which the wrong word or right gesture looms larger for the silence or space that surrounds it, like a mountain rising abruptly from a plain; and where currents of human intercourse are trickier by far than a turnaround mixing seams at a confluence. Seriously well done, and a fine read. The Quiet Mountains: A Ten-Year Search for the Last Wild Trout of Mexico's Sierra Madre Occidental By Rex Johnson, Jr. Photographs by David Burckhalter (University of New Mexico Press: 2005; 800-249-7737; www.unmpress.com) 224 pp.; hardcover; $45 I know a lawyer in Sacramento, a fan of Ambrose Bierce, who I think would appreciate this book; also a fly-shop owner in Michigan, although I doubt he'd like the author's attitude. And I'm guessing that parts of The Quiet Mountains will appeal to some of fly-fishing's more dedicated iconoclasts. Imagine bitter Bierce-who did, they say, disappear below this border-with a fly rod, and a less toxic bite; or maybe Edward Abby, absent his activist's impulses, and, you know, giddy optimism. Quiet's premise is simple. Or it started out to be: Author Rex Johnson, Jr., "…decided to write a book about the trout of Mexico, but my designs for that comparatively grand project gradually contracted into a more familiar look at the upper Bavispe River in the northern Sierra Madre of the same country, not far from where I live, across the border in New Mexico." The result is a series of highly personal, observant and occasionally cranky essays describing expeditions between 1988 and 2002, during which he suffers "some necessary toll of sunburn, heat exhaustion, hail and snow, battered vehicles, body aches, and personal debt, but it was well worth the effort." Let's make this clear: These journeys are not much about science, nor a search for some new blue-ribbon fishery. The motives for quests are more difficult to apprehend. At one point the author wonders if his real goal might be simply to catch the last of a species facing extinction. "For instance, it is more interesting to fish for trout after the trout have nearly disappeared. As the natural world dwindles, you always have the feeling you're looking at things for the last time, that you are taking one last look. Someone has to, after all." Readers will appreciate Johnson's descriptions, and David Burckhalter's photos, of country and cultures with features often beautiful, charming, alien and occasionally edgy. Personally, I enjoyed the fact that the author travels on pesos and dimes, in iffy vehicles, with some questionable companions, following itineraries subject to change at almost any intersection of rutted tracks. Johnson does catch fish, even a few special fish; but often as not he documents ongoing destruction. "Life as it has evolved here is merely a glimmering of the sun's decay. In fact, in the case of our own kind in particular, life seems to be subservient to it, for our lives are extremely brief and fearful, and we ourselves serve the ends of entropy, as a sort of catalyst or mechanism for it, for we ourselves are the dynamite we have made, let loose in the museum of the creation." Quiet left me optimistic that there remains a place in fly-fishing for idiosyncratic journey, even chronicles of obsession. Trout Grass Written and narrated by David James Duncan (2005: Volcano Productions; www.troutgrass.com) 48 minutes; DVD; $29.95 A tribute, simply and lovingly constructed, Trout Grass is a paean to a process that begins, like this DVD, in the hillside forests of Guangdong Province in southern China. That's where culms of a plant that can grow several feet in a night are hand cut, hauled by human-pulled carts down hillside paths…soon to be carefully sorted and culled, then transported 10,000 miles into the hands of craftsman like Hoagy Carmichael and Glenn Brackett. The transformation these artisans produce-we watch Brackett working some of the 4,000 steps it takes to make a rod-creates a tool treasured by fishers who savor the feel of fibers strong as steel, and still alive, perhaps, in spirit. "It's said that split bamboo means something to everybody, and everything to some," observes writer and narrator David James Duncan early on. He counts himself among the devotees, and his gentle musings punctuate the observations of those for whom collecting bamboo is a business and its shaping a calling; and also frames the thoughts of other anglers who cast this grass with a quiet passion, including author Thomas McGuane. Ed George's cinematography is simply spectacular (his credits include work for National Geographic); and the entire production has a pace familiar to fishers willing to wait for a rod to load, anticipating that sweet moment with a smile.