Northwest of Normal

Northwest of Normal

Serious fiction.

  • By: Seth Norman
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Fly-fishing literature has new allies, even as old friends of the genre surrender—for the moment—to devolving exigencies of the publishing world. Skyhorse Publishers has picked up slack since 2006, with class-act books by William G. Tapply, Peter Kaminsky, Ted Williams, Ted Leeson and E. Donnall Thomas, Jr., among others. Now comes Barclay Creek Press, entering our world with a novel by John Larison. (At HQ, Fly Rod & Reel Books was launched in autumn 2009, with Fresh Water Gamefish of North America and In Hemingway’s Meadow, worth checking out.)

Fiction. Serious fiction deserves serious consideration. John Larison’s Northwest of Normal is elegantly written, by any standards. No reader need dilute expectations because, as in “after all, it’s about fly-fishing,” nor surrender to covert understandings such as “if a dialog describes hatches, never mind that it’s unspeakable, even by characters so flat.” Make no excuses; none needed.

Here begins John Larison’s Northwest, through the mind of guide Andy Trib: “What hadn’t changed was the smell: first the purpled sweetness of ripe blackberries, then deeper, the green spice of Doug fir needles. Deeper yet was the chocolaty musk of the river at dawn, its fog ghosting over the riffle. This was the Ipsyniho he remembered, and Christ had he missed it.”

Missed it he had: even Chile’s cold rivers provided scant solace. But better than the oft-asked “How come you left?” is a singular demand “Why did you come back?” As in, “How dare you?”

It takes a brave author to tackle the betrayal theme with a central character revealed as a sinner early on. That’s partly because of readers like me—folks who drop The Kite Runner after 30 pages, convinced they’ll never care enough about the errant narrator to follow him anywhere. “Beyond redemption” says it for we of rigid minds; to steal from the original story of the Golden Rule—mindful of the irony—“Everything else is just commentary.”

So give author John Larison points for courage, delivering us Andy, a steelhead guide who returns to his home river to row a load of hubris upstream. He fled his Ipsyniho life for good reason—Andy betrayed Danny, fishing-mentor and best friend, with Danny’s fiancee, just days before their wedding and then fled before the ceremony. That the fiancee and Andy shared a hidden history, regrets and unfinished business—or is it?—might help explain their misdeed. But all of the same threaten his homecoming: Andy’s less Prodigal Son than a pariah tempting consequence. Why?

Is it conscience? A friendship too valuable to abandon or a lost chance of love—or both? Is it memories of an innocent time in green gray paradise—special people who made home for him on a special river...steelhead, a special fish—the purity of place and pursuit that once engaged him, utterly, and that might, somehow, again?

Or did he just run out of options in a wide world where he never escaped himself? Don’t ask Andy. Odds are he’d lie; and so he does, first to himself, perhaps, then to everybody who matters. But Andy aches each time he does so, and wonders what he might do differently.

Remorse as a saving grace: Larison presents Andy as lost soul rather than lousy man—aimless, often clueless, but not indifferent. He’s profoundly concerned by an issue far older than Oedipus: how do you make right an irrevocable wrong?

That’s not the only aching issue in Northwest. Larison’s Oregon gasps for breath, or water, as it happens; Andy’s Ipsyniho barely fishes at the low flows left by drought, ailing too much to help him make rent; the hills are alive with the sound of chain-saws; an allegedly-benign developer has plans for the watershed surrounding a spawning tributary; and let’s not forget the influence of the state’s major cash crop, which sure ain’t Andy’s beloved blackberries. Our not-so-anti-hero isn’t the only player compromised or threatened by secrets; soon he’s drawn and tempted, and then hauled by the hair into a high-stakes game.

The book reads as if Larison lives the river, ripe with observations, a landscape at times more clearly realized than the characters in Andy’s life. A sense of community comes through—a mosaic of long-time locals living and lumbering where they were born, often beside newer residents absolutely committed to that land as it was, still is—and, they hope, will remain. Those well-wishers, in turn, need and resent those arriving after, colonizing wilderness with condos; everybody disdains the Day Trippers who sweep through on weekends to spend dollars that support the straight economy. It’s too true, in this Northwest, that everything has a price. Witness a formerly “free” festival, a harvest celebration so inflated by success there’s little space for the locals who helped found the fun and now can’t afford a ticket...And somewhere in there is Andy, feverishly looking for answers. ?

Seth Norman lives in Washington state and is the author of Meaderings of a Fly Fisherman and other books.