- By: Seth Norman
by Seth Norman
Where Trout Sing
and other San Francisco Stories
By Art Dollosso
2012; Sonoma Small Press
available at www.adamsanglingbooks.com
178 pages; hardcover; $25
So many of Art Dollosso’s pieces in Sing are funny, sly and doleful that it’s a pleasing surprise when he slips smoothly into eloquent studies of mountains and rivers, seas and skies. Expect the eclectic, from literary references to fish-eye observations of Little Italy’s blue-collar life. In “Stocking San Francisco,” the author-as-artistic-young-angler describes the “promising young hoodlums” who patrol a violent city park, “. . . famous for body drops, stripping cars, and mayhem,” where soon he and his fishing pals will plant an utterly duckless Duck Lake with tropical fish liberated from the Steinhart Aquarium’s cull tanks. In another, written mainly as history, he describes a still-wild Ishi Wilderness, where “. . . down among the boughed pepperwoods at Deer Creek Falls” an observant angler “. . . can catch a quick glimpse of an uncommon spring salmon punching up through white throated cataracts.”
Sometimes Dollosso combines elements that appear incongruent in a single shot, as when a frayed fisher seeks solace from a stream and Seagrams Seven, hoping to find “a touch of Hemingway’s big two-fisted Big Two-Hearted River running through the tributaries of his head to his heart. The aloneness of it. The solitary angler not escaping from human nature, but escaping into mother’s nature.” Perhaps he does, too, after waking from an inebriated nap to watch a supernova slide across the sky. If it’s small surprise that “Dawn broke bleakly,” still, “The light mandolin winds of last night had become a bugle thunder that bellowed across the canyon and into the plains below. The symphonic sounds were a perfect pitch accompaniment and the finale to his own private sky.”
If keys change often in Sing, so do pronouns, as Dollosso alternates from first to third person in these 164 pages, a collection comprised of 43 essays, short stories and humor riffs, conservation articles and exposés, his tribute to rod-maker “Doug Merrick, the Maestro,” also a fair number of California where- and how-tos, including one big-trout ringer surrendered only because age forbids Dollosso to climb down its canyon wall again this lifetime. There’s a touching elegy to the author’s mother, a soft story of a sail into eternity that leaves him unmoored and rudderless, and ultimately united with an old friend: himself. Humor prevails more often: In “Fit to be Tied,” Dollosso narrates the epic tragedy of left-handedness, beginning as he struggles to apply splints after a mugging, and from there flashes back to punishment inflicted by a “three-strikes” nun, savage attacks by three-ring binders, and humiliations inflicted by fishing knot and instruction. Rogues roam widely, from poachers and thieves, to the bench-sitting tale-tellers of “Columbus Day,” regulars at a bait shop whose owner also fences and frequently quotes his own 11th Commandment: “In my business, information, and lack of information comes at a price.” It’s here where Big Tony—aroused, possibly, by the closing of a “25-cent-a-cup honor coffee mess” due to lack of honor—proceeds to step things “up a notch,” recalling “an article in last summer’s Markleeville Express that said two large mosquitoes had carried off a woman’s poodle, and apparently not satisfied, came back for her. He said he could produce the newspaper article but it would take a while for him to locate it.”
Music appears often in Sing, as one would expect. But it might be fair to call the book a literary brodetto, if I have that right, a seafood stew made with clams, mussels, squid, shrimp and fish, seasoned by vinegar, tomatoes, garlic, lemon zest; also a generous quantity of wine—only appropriate, if it’s true that Dollosso now owns a vineyard. Books like it appear seldom enough that I inevitably reference John Voelker’s Danny and the Boys, or sometimes Patrick McManus. There’s a little of each in Sing, and a whole lot of Art Dollosso.
A Sportsman’s Library
100 Essential, Engaging, Offbeat, and Occasionally Odd Fishing and Hunting Books for the Adventurous Reader
By Stephen Bodio
2013; Lyons Press; www.lyonspress.com
272 pages; softcover; $18.95
Stephen Bodio is the former book reviewer for Fly Rod & Reel and Gray’s Sporting Journal. This collection includes works by authors whose names also appear on the pages of this magazine, and one of the books is mine—though for the record it’s no longer in print. Bodio’s a friend, a problem this review will address again.
I’ve no idea how many titles Bodio considered when selecting those he discusses in A Sportsman’s Library. His obsession with hunting and fishing literature spans half a century, during which he “amassed, sold and rebuilt three libraries,” wrote this column for Fly Rod & Reel, and before that “Bodio’s Books” for Gray’s. The editors and publishers he identifies as Library’s “Unacknowledged Creators” include a host of the most distinguished: Pat Ryan, Ed Gray, Nick Lyons, the late Les Line, Jim Babb, Silvio Calabi, Daniel Cote, Allen Jones and Ralph Stuart. (Bodio is also the first author I’ve seen credit booksellers: Jim Adams, Jerry Lane and Nicholas Potter.)
Reviewing is only a “sideline,” however, for an “unhyphenated writer” who has authored classics in fields directly related to Library: Good Guns; A Rage for Falcons; An Eternity of Eagles; and Querencia. He’s a lifelong fisher, naturalist, falconer, hunter and gun expert, “a wanderer who has ridden with Kazakh eaglers in Mongolia and caught malaria in a jungle camp in Zimbabwe,” who has “lived the kind of life chronicled in my sporting library” while consuming as many words written about water and land, fish, birds and animals as anybody I know. Jamesen Parker testifies to this scope in Library’s Foreword, wherein he compares Bodio to Derek Flint, from Our Man Flint—a movie character who was “the world’s greatest everything: master spy, heavyweight boxing champion of the world . . . occasional premier-danseur with the Bolshoi . . . .” The difference is Bodio is “the real McCoy and not a parody of anything, unless it’s one of those eccentric Victorian polymaths who causally dashed off tomes . . . that are now considered the definitive work on that particular subject . . . [his] range of interests, and the depth with which he has pursued those interests, put him in that rather intimidating league.
“Who else but Steve Bodio could have compiled a list that ranges from Emperor Fredericks II’s thirteenth-century Latin treatise on falconry, De Arte Venandi cum Avibus, to Brian Plummer’s dark and wickedly funny late twentieth-century Tales of a Rat Hunting Man?” (To that I would add The Curtis Creek Manifesto, so that readers do not develop the wrong idea.)
Bodio’s editor asks him to write “about the best one hundred sporting books.” He responds with a résumé, but confesses, “what really shapes this book is that, to quote a phrase from a youthful statement by novelist-sportsman Thomas McGuane, ‘I read like a son-of-a bitch.’”
Ironically, the same background that qualified Bodio to select the “best” convinced him he should not: “Best” does not appear in Library’s title or subtitle. “If I chose one hundred books by that standard,” he laments in an apologia, “it felt like an insufficient number; two hundred books would be not be a definitive set of the best.” Some would be boring, however important or influential, others too familiar. Instead, Bodio developed another set of standards—essential, engaging, offbeat and occasionally odd, also “entertaining,” aiming at adventurous readers. These set, “I started in a breathless afternoon’s rush and wrote down from memory about 130 titles on yellow pad.” He added, subtracted, made rules he broke, and fretted over questions an average bibliophile might have missed, such as, “How could I not include George Leonard’s Bull Cook and Authentic Historical Recipes and Practices? You would not only lose Dove’s Wyyat Earp, but you would also miss reading about Beethoven’s Spam and the Virgin Mary’s Spinach.”
That conundrum raises another irony Library readers may find apparent. Tack onto the subtitle’s adjectives “erudite, irreverent, unabashedly opinionated and always appreciative.” The sum describes Bodio as he appears in this book. His essays overflow with invitations to read couched in elegant prose, and bursts of enthusiasm often offered in the spirit of a kid sharing the coolest toy ever. His portraits of many authors draw from historical research, and occasionally extracts from his own interviews and correspondence. The goal is always to bring them alive for a reader. Above all, Bodio’s voice is personal—essential, engaging, et al.
Ultimately he does catch many classics in the wide net he casts—The Compleat Angler, The Book of St. Albans, What the Trout Said—along with lots of surprises. Thirty pieces are “about” fishing, 17 fall into “Wingshooting.” The rest, while classified as “General Hunting, Guns, Travel, Mixed, and Miscellaneous,” include dozens of works an adventurous non-hunting reader will enjoy, from Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Tom McGuane, Jim Harrison and Aldo Leopold, among others I’d never heard of but now will seek out. (Note: While there’s a great deal about conservation in these works, killing and eating what you kill are accepted parts of life.) But expect the unexpected:
“My choices include a comic book (Curtis Creek Manifesto), a medieval falconry book by an emperor, an art book about fly tying materials . . . timeless advice about how to catch rats, the latest theories on Paleolithic cave painting . . . [and] fishing poetry by a famous poet laureate of England who now shares covers with the oddest allegedly true statement I know: ‘Being eaten by a hyena is less painful than you think.’’’
That paragraph is pure Bodio. So are these samples.
From Chapter 23, The Last Pool and Other Stories, by Patrick O’Brian, an excerpt that reveals what Bodio brings to the tabula:
“It is O’Brian’s atmosphere that is unique; his tales exist in an uncanny atmosphere I might call ‘Irish.’ I do not mean Irish in any picturesque sense, nor romantic; Ireland is neither cute nor quaint. As Shane McGowan sings, ‘It’s dark and it’s old.’ Rather, think Irish like Yeat’s tombstone: ‘Cast a cold eye/on life on death/Horseman, pass by!’ Several of these tales may make you smile, but more will leave you with a chill.”
From Chapter 28, a discussion of The Way of a Trout with a Fly, by G. E. M. Skues:
“How could you not love a book that begins with the statement, ‘Authority darkens council . . .’ and continues, ‘An Authority is a person engaged in the invidious business of stereotyping and disseminating information, frequently incorrect . . . .’? And then goes on to elaborate in a sentence that, like the ones above, can stand alone: ‘An authority who lays down the law and dogmatizes is a narcotic, a soporific, an opiate.’ Skues’s works are chains of epigrams, strung end to end.”
Or, “…He inevitably sees the naked emperor. To those who enthuse about the discernment of fish, he opines, deadpan, that the trout ‘is a rather stupid person.’ His language even outside these bon mots is irresistible. Listing the reasons that a trout might take a fly, he progresses through hunger and curiosity to ‘tyranny.’”
From Chapter 9, The Well-Tempered Angler:
“Arnold Gingrich, founder and editor of Esquire, was a connoisseur, with the virtues and vices the breed. He fished obsessively . . . with little bitty rods . . . and collected things; among them were fishing tackle, violins, writers, books, and wives.
“Despite his clubman’s unshakable air of privilege, he accumulated a vast amount of knowledge . . . .”
Finally, to the caveat that opened this column:
During his career Bodio reviewed authors he knows. It’s a problem we share, so I post his response and my own.
His: “In 1993, reviewing books for Fly Rod & Reel, I was accused of writing something nice about someone I knew. I had, and will. My argument goes like this: First, the world of outdoor writers, even the larger world of letters, is a small one. Sometimes I think we all know each other. So, I will not give a good review to a bad book by a friend. I will bend over backward to be fair to those with whom I have had disagreements. I will not give a bad review to someone I do not like.”
Mine, 20 years later: What he said. w
He felt that if it were possible to see deep inside his heart, there was truly no sad part.