Book Reviews

  • By: Seth Norman
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Keeping Track
The Inner Eye of an Outdoor Life
By Ed Gray
Illustrations by Russell Buzzell
Copyright 2009; Graybooks LLC;
www.graybooks.net, hardcover, $25.20

No offense to Herman Melville and Thomas Mann, but composing clear, concise and evocative essays ranks near the top of writing challenges. Einstein himself muttered something about suggesting that if you can’t explain a concept simply you likely don’t understand it; and Albert proved it by writing a doctoral dissertation that ran all of four pages. For my money, however, Will Rogers pounded the nail, with lines I can only paraphrase these days: “Any fool can get complicated. It takes a genius to make things simple.”

Which brings us to Ed Gray, who with his wife Rebecca founded Gray’s Sporting Journal. Gray parted from the magazine in the early 1990s, I think, but not before penning 16 years of introductory essays for each issue. Three-score and ten are collected in Keeping Track, first issue of Graybooks, the couple’s new publishing house. Each piece examines moments of a sporting life, epiphanies courtesy of recalcitrant bird dogs, carcass-eating trout, stripers that pound the shallows on ugly-weather nights off Montauk. Then there’s the present of a first, full set of fly-fishing gear to an offspring who will learn to cast on the lawn and learn to learn in the process.

Short works turn fast. Simple doesn’t mean unsophisticated, but there’s small room for indulgence in 500 words, or even a thousand, though at 1,500 you can stretch out some, as long you avoid adverbs. (Always avoid adverbs.) A few of Gray’s run longer than that, but many go around 300, a point at which you’re tap dancing on a pinhead with all the Old Testament angels. The opening must engage instantly. Try these:

“The fisherman and his companion started the day’s fishing in the usual way, facing forward in a small skiff planing full-bore past mangroves, the Bahamian morning blasting into their faces at 35 miles per hour.”

“On the salt marsh the tide is rhythm, rolling in and rolling out, six hours out and six hours in, and the four movements are the seasons themselves. The instruments are sun and wind, grass, mud and sand. And the birds are melody.”

“I know a man who tried to buy all the best hunting and fishing places in the world. He really did.”
So now you know. I’d like to remark more on Gray’s humor here, declare directly that many of his vignettes—half? more?—are about hunting, and offer some admiring comments about Russell Buzzell’s illustrations.…But I only get so many words here, and I’m over.

Threatened Species
By Jeff Vande Zande
Copyright 2009; Whistling Shade Press; www.whistlingshade.com, $14

 

The problem with contemporary short stories is that so few make things right at the end. They feel like our lives, I mean; and most of us don’t have Hallmark writing our scripts. Take Threatened Species, for example, the third book by Jeff Vande Zande. A text sample: “…On those days he never questioned what he was doing. Every day unfolded like a map. Sometimes he felt sorry for people whose marriage fell apart. He knew at one point he would never be like those people. He knew. He would have Susan and Danny and be among the lucky who somehow made it. He knew. What had he known? Why had it seemed so solid? Why did it shatter? The highway was in his headlights, gray just beyond them, and then black ahead. More blackness than anything.”

The book title is repeated from the long lead story, wherein Ed Winters, an unhappily divorced father, takes his son on a road trip a week before the boy’s due to leave to Paris with mom and step-dad. As in leave, to live, the rest of his life as a child. Ed can’t stop the move because he has roughly the same custody rights as a complete stranger.

These things happen. Ed made a mistake, back when; now in a desperate time, he’s about to make others. He means well; if his son wants to fly-fish, because that’s what step-dad does, Ed will wade along, swallowing pride and hurt while seething so much his boots should steam when he steps into water.

Desperate times make people dangerous, especially someone as bewildered and wounded as Ed, for whom life has stopped making any sense at all. Drunk or sober, he’s full of dread, facing nothing but dead ends, so alone with his losses that his only sympathizer arrives looking a lot like a bounty hunter.

Fly-fishing plays a part in this and about half the stories that follow, but even when the setting is rivers the author’s most focused on human landscapes, interior scenes of characters waking to consequences, fair or not.

The luckiest learn something from others’ mistakes, maybe in time to arrest entropy unfolding into angst. Maybe not. But I pondered each of these stories well I after I read them. ■

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