Faced with the tasks of weeding, watering, washing dishes, vacuuming or writing—which to do first, I will inevitably NOT choose writing, especially if it calls for something original and especially if it entails forming and sharing an opinion about something…which is why, my inter-library loan is now overdue and the review of this summer read I so enjoyed is not yet written…
So, here goes, a second attempt
The River Why
David James Duncan
A Bantam Book, Sierra Club ed. 1983, 291pp.
What I liked: I love this writer despite his crass irreverence. (Thus my hesitance to recommend his book.) He has such a quirky way of seeing things and capturing the hilarity of even serious things that he gets even me to chuckle as I read. His characters are bigger than life and unforgettable. The lessons they convey are often via humor. Granted others would laugh out loud. But for me, an audible chuckle takes some doing, and I like an author that can accomplish it.
Unfortunately: Often religious people, institutions or teachings bear the brunt of Duncan's humor. Little is sacred. This can be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your religious allegiances. If you are a Jehovah's Witness, for example, you will not enjoy this book, (just as Seventh Day Adventist's would have had trouble with his first novel, The Brothers K) but it will deliver a jolt of perspective as to how your 'witless'-ing style comes across to some folk. Duncan obviously finds religious hypocrisy detestable and he is not afraid to say so but his honest (and humorous) reactions to it have value. Hilarity is perhaps not the worst way to expose ineffective religiosity.
***Spoiler alert! The story will not be the same once you’ve read further.***
On the other hand…though the book begins with multiple irreverent references to God, and is rife with language which may offend, it soon becomes evident that this is the log of a spiritual journey, from cynical agnosticism to belief in a God who is indeed there and who is in fact loving. This journey is wrapped up in story, laced with real-life struggle, despair and questioning. But in the end doubt gives way to faith, despair to rest and the fisherman who narrates throughout is snagged by Love.
The River that snakes through the landscape like a great scrawled cursive w-h-y forms the setting for this journey, both literally and symbolically. We wade through countless streams and learn more than we may ever have hoped to know about fly fishing (and environmental concerns!) in the process of pursuing the reason WHY we are alive. Various streams of spirituality are introduced by the eccentric characters we meet along the way—the philosophical, native mysticism, and a hippie version of yin and yang. Each is seen as having some merit, drawing into question the nature of the spirituality arrived at by book's end. The final product may not be entirely orthodox but neither is it mere religiousness. Duncan's irreverent fisherman Gus discovers a God who is indeed evident in His Creation, despite evolutionist views to the contrary, and who loves and wishes to be known personally by His human creations. And that's a refreshing read for a 'secular' book! Granted, the means to a relationship with this God is not entirely clear, but is beautifully hinted at in stories and analogies. Jesus' name is not mentioned. But there is a certain "Man-fisher" that lures with love…
This is by no means a 'Christian' book, but finding a journey toward faith so thoughtfully depicted by such an excellent secular writer is a real treat IF you can overlook the potentially offensive language and earthiness in spots. Duncan is expert at tying flies by way of story that will draw his readers along the stream toward the hook of faith. Unforgettable characters. Excellent writing!
And as always, here are my favorite passages, more 'spoilers' if you will:
"Who was this 'God of nature'? Why hadn't I met Him, or at least learned something substantial about Him, or at the very least heard His Name consistently taken in some way other than in vain?" p.37
"After all, I'd fished as intently as perhaps any boy had ever done, and I not only failed to encounter Walton's god, I failed to see the least evidence of his existence." p.38
"I also like how four of the disciples were just plain old commercial fishermen till they started to follow Jesus around on dry land, and how they didn't start to do that until he kept asking them to, and after he died they went right back out fishing again, and probably would have kept fishin' if Resurrected Jesus hadn't come for them, and when he came the first thing he did was show them where to catch the hundred and fifty and three fish they caught. And until all that happened those disciples were pretty much like me, except technique-wise. They just fished. And even after they quit fishing for fish they still fished, for men—whatever that means. That's why I like them. They just minded their business, which was fishing, and only started praying and preaching when they were lured into it—and it took God's son to lure them! And maybe God told Izaak Walton about Himself, how do I know? But He never told me nothing. And until He or some new son of His comes along and tells me straight out that they want me to be different than how I am, I'm going to be like the disciples, and how me and them are is we're fishermen, plain and simple. I' going to fish as long as I can as hard as I can, and wherever that takes me is where I'm going, be it Good Place or Bad. Because if God is everything the Bible and the Compleat Angler crack Him up to be, it's Him that's making me want to fish anyhow, and Him who will turn me into a fish or worm or fly or angel or star or saint or sun or frog or taco whenever He decides and what could I do about it? nothing. Just keep fishing. That's all." p.44
"The Queen's the most beautiful thing there is. She's where all pretty things come from. When we can't even look at something as pretty as the sun without shuttin' our eyes, how could we look at the Queen?"
"…The Queen has to wear lots of thick robes to cover herself up with. She makes the robes herself, 'cause nobody else can make somethin' Queen-light don't shine through. It's not like she likes wearing all that heavy stuff. She does it 'cause of us. The Queen is here…she is right here in this room, and if it weren't for her robes, we'd be going Poof! See the Queen before you're ready, you die…" p.124
"My naked eye had seen nothing of this whirling spectrum, and even now, through binoculars, I saw little of the beauty that must really be there. Then it struck me: trees, mists, mountains, flowers, fish, stones and streams—all these must be the robes saving my eyes from the Queen's searing light; yet they refracted and colored that light, and it shone dimly through, making them beautiful. Such beauty as the Queen's must exist. My heart pounded that it be so." p131
"I'd believed that solitude would free me and, alone and independent, I would make myself into the person I wanted to be. But solitude, I found, was no guarantee of anything. Day after day I stood alone on whispering streams, tranquility and beauty on all sides…Presto! a swarm of hobgoblins came scuffling into my skull, hunkered down like hobos under a bridge, and proceeded to yammer at the tops of their lungs! …some facile ditty from a TV commercial; …idiotic scraps of doggerel…my critic, pitching me shit, calling me names, giving me grief over every treed fly, missed strike, stubbed toe, telling me I should…; this one had a brother, the Whiner: 'I'm sleepy, I'm hungry, I'm tired, I'm bored, I'm lonely…My back hurts, My stomach aches, Why are we doing this, What are we doing here, When can we go home, When can we leave home?' And most obnoxious of all, the Gloater: 'HA! What a cast! I'm the greatest!....Who but***ME*** could have hooked that fish under those conditions?...' I was free. I was alone. It was hell. the confusion, the misery, the stupidity—all of it followed me from [home] to [here], and in the quiet it grew fecund and multiplied. It came from nobody but me."
"And so I learned what solitude really was. It was raw material—awesome, malleable, older than men or worlds or water. And it was merciless—for it let a man become precisely what he alone made of himself. One needed either wisdom or tree-bark insensitivity to confront such a fearsome freedom. Realizing now that I lacked both, I let myself long fro company." p.147,148
"How can you be so sagacious and patient in seeking fish, and so hasty and thick as to write off your soul because you can't see it?" p.179
"[I] read like a fiend, finding it a far more satisfying thing to sally self-effaced through a masterpiece than to mope along creeks all day pricking holes in fish mouths." p.200
"The day melted into buttery evening. Things grew beautiful—" p.204
"I tell you, Gus. I was right about God. He isn't just. If He was, I'd have sunk there in my North Sea stupidity. But thank God He's more than just…
"…but since this hook pierced me the world hasn't been the same. I just didn't know anything, nothing at all, till God let me watch that line run away from me, my hands all powerless an' cold…You're young, Gus. I don't know if you've been to that place beyond help or hope. But I was there, on the sea that day. And I was sent the help unlooked for, an' it came in the shape of a hook. An' nothin' will ever be the way it was before that day, not for me it won't… he stretched his right fist toward me...in the center of the palm lay the scar, red and waxy…'Behold the sign of the Fisher's love for a wooden-headed ass!'" p.231
"But I felt that the one I called Nameless was trying to speak to me—had long been trying. And his "words" were silent, spoken in a language of images: the drowned fisherman, the pine know, the why in the river, old Thomas, Eddy in the alder, the scar in the palm—these were the signposts marking both my inner and outer journey. they were not much like the usual sacred signs…And these things had been given as gifts—like rain, like rivers—unlooked for, unasked for: I had to follow the signs that I was given, as rivers follow valleys, as spring follows winter, as leaves turn and salmon spawn and geese fly south in October. I couldn't trade the trail these images blazed for me for a straight and narrow way *not when water's ways, meandering and free flowing, had always been my love." p.235
*[My note: Actually, it is for freedom Christ sets us free. There is no way that frees us but the straight and narrow way of Christ Jn.14:6 This is a paradox, but nonetheless true] LS
"I wanted to know my soul. I wanted to befriend Whoever it had been that walked with me on the road, yesterday dawn. But when I stuck my feet in the source-spring I could feel too well the limits of my own unguided yearnings. I would never make it. Not alone. I would never make it to the real source of things unless or until Ol' Nameless chose to come and find me fishing." p.246
"It's a damned tough business sitting around trying to force yourself to force God to force feed you a revelation or vision or spiritual assistant or something." p.246
"And then I felt it—a sharp pain in my heart, like a hook being set. I whirled around: sunlight struck me full in the face. My eyes closed. And then I saw it…a line so subtle it must be made of nothing nameable. And it ran from my heart of earth and blood, through my head, to the sky;…ran from the changing , flowing forms of the world to a realm that light alone could enter. But my pain grew sharper: mad with joy, I sank to my knees on the white road, and I felt the hand, resting like sunlight on head. And I knew that the line of light led not to a realm but to a Being, and that the light and hook were his, and that they were made of love alone. My heart was pierced. I began to weep. I felt the Ancient One drawing me toward him, coaxing me out of this autumn landscape, beckoning me on toward undying joy." p.277-278
"Taking the good with the bad, I'm just living happily ever after. That is, I'm being hung by the heart until dead. Dreefee dead. Who could ask for more?" p.280
"…it was my twenty-first birthday, which meant that I was now a man –because in America a man is defined not as a person who can vote or think or be drafted or carry guns or preach or pray, but as somebody who can get drunk legally…" p.281
'I may make all things well: and I can make all things well: and I shall make all things well and I will make all things well: and thou shalt see thyself that all manner of things shall be well…' –Lady Julian of Norwich
"…In my heart I know the Man-fisher knows best: river-armed and ocean-handed, he tends his lines with infinite patience, gracious to those who love him, a mirage to those who don't… In the end it all rides on how you look at things. And how you look at things depends on how His line leads you to look…"p.290