Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Water World

By Sam Jemielity

DECEMBER 13, 1999:  In "The Longest Silence," Thomas McGuane recalls the story of an old man who had lived in the same part of Montana all his life, but had never even ventured to nearby Billings. "Personally," McGuane writes, "I like the young African who made his way to the North Pole after having been enchanted by a photograph of the icebergs." McGuane adds: "There's no substitute for courage."

On that score, I'd have to guess McGuane would admire William Least Heat Moon, who climbed aboard a 21-foot harbor tug of a boat in 1995 to cross America by river, for no other reason than his curiosity about what the country looked like from her waterways. The story of that journey, Heat Moon's "River Horse: A Logbook of a Boat Across America," is a different breed of adventure story from the "Into Thin Air," summitting Everest, stepping over frozen bodies genre that has come to dominate the bestseller charts recently. There isn't anything exceptionally dangerous about the journey described in "River Horse," although minor scares, like a choppy jaunt in Lake Erie and an arduous stretch along the Mississippi rattle the nerves of the crew from time to time. But danger is always averted, there's always a dockside glass of stout to calm the pulse rate, and the book did get written, after all.

As anyone who has read "Huck Finn" knows, a river can be a mighty source of inspiration. But instead of channeling the spirit of Twain, Heat Moon seems almost intent to outdo his idol—as if his journey is an exam, and he wants to get extra credit for his voluminous research. Long block quotes from numbing tomes such as George Catlin's 1841 "Illustrations of the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians" appear all too often, popping up like submerged sandbars to run the narrative aground.

On the other hand, Thomas McGuane's obsession with angling becomes as clear as a Montana trout stream in his new collection of autobiographical essays, "The Long Silence: A Life in Fishing." Don't let any impulsive friends near this book, or they will be on the next plane to Montana, or Argentina, or Key West, or New Zealand, or Ireland, with a brand new rod and reel and some waders. Your friend might start spouting McGuanisms: "Sea trout are enigmatic fish to be polite. They are brown trout and therefore subject to that species' notorious moodiness." Or "Only the utterly initiated consider the bonefish handsome."

Like Heat Moon, who includes an appendix of environmental agencies to help clean up America's waterways, McGuane has his own conservationist bent. He worries about drought, about unscrupulous irrigation in Montana, and can't resist a jab at corporate bigwigs who Gulfstream into the tundra for a fly-casting r&r junket unwittingly funded by shareholders. But the focus is on trout and tarpon and bonefish and permit and salmon and striped bass, and on McGuane himself, and the people he has encountered on the way to far-flung fishing holes. In the essay "Small Streams in Michigan," McGuane recalls fishing in Michigan's Bear Creek with his wife's grandfather, Pomp. "[Pomp] had great hands," McGuane recalls. "Not only that, he belonged to the category of sportsmen who will stop at nothing." In the title essay, about McGuane's hunt for the elusive permit—a notoriously difficult fish to catch with a fly—he deems his early efforts a complete failure, "like trying to bait a tiger with watermelons." McGuane's fly may not work on fish, but readers will surely be hooked by "The Longest Silence."

"The Longest Silence: My Life In Fishing"
Thomas McGuane; Edited by Laurence Jackson and Sarah Hyman Stewart (Alfred A. Knopf) $25

"River Horse: A Logbook of a Boat Across America"
William Least Heat Moon (Houghton Mifflin) $26


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