||by Bill Barich (Nigeria 196466)
The Lyons Press, $16.95
Reviewed by Mike Tidwell (Zaire 198587)
If youre going to wade into that literary water commonly known as the fishing memoir you better have something interesting to say in an interesting way. The tradition goes way back and the bar has been set very high, with contributions from Ernest Hemingway (disguised as fiction), the legendary Ray Bergman (if you havent read his classic Trout you havent lived), and the brilliant contemporary river wanderings and life musings of Nick Lyons.
The problem with Bill Barichs new book Crazy About Rivers is
not a lack of good stories. Hes got plenty of yarn, from hooking a rainbow trout as fat as a sow on Washingtons Yakima River to running scared from an ornery moose in Yellowstone park, to nearly flipping a car (rods, tackle and all) off a rocky backcountry ledge in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumme River in California.
Likewise, the problem with this book is not the writing itself. By the end of chapter two, we know were in the hands of a skilled and passionate and often amusing wordsmith as Barich lays out the tension and beauty of stalking a hefty trout along Californias Bear River on a cold November day. Finally, the payoff: I saw a boil and then a slashing take, and I was into . . . a thick-bodied brown about eighteen inches long, all the more lovely to behold in the flurries of snow that had started to fall.
The book is even better for anyone who likes fishing and happens to be an RPCV, Barich somehow seamlessly weaves into the narrative memories of his time as a Volunteer in Nigeria in the 1960s. He tells of teaching in a mud-brick classroom in a subtropical rain forest with pesky goats and guinea fowl meandering in, while the students were discussing Jane Austen. And of eating grilled porcupine and writing bad poetry and drinking Star Beer, a native brew potent enough to induce hallucinations. As a fellow Africa Volunteer, these details are pleasantly recognizable to me and deepen the story, as intended, far beyond the confines of gurgling trout pools in highland streams. Barich also writes well of his childhood summers in backwoods Minnesota, his hippie years as an accomplished slacker in San Francisco, and, finally, a painful divorce.
No, the only problem with this book and its a big problem is that its not one. A book, that is. Officially, the pages of this ultra-slim volume number 80. But 19 of those are the blank pages between chapters. So here we have a book presumably published with a straight face by The Lyons Press with a grand total of 61 pages with words actually on them. At $16.95 for the trade paperback, this must be some sort of record for the most money per page pony-ed up by readers. Is it too much to ask that magazine articles stay where they belong? Or that Barich simply double his output, a surely easy task given his lifetime of fishing and collecting stories?
I like Bill Barichs writing very much and I like The Lyons Press (full disclosure: theyve published two of my books and a third is in the works), but Crazy for Rivers is, plain and simple, a rip-off. So go to the library or borrow a copy from some sucker in your neighborhood and enjoy the read during a single train ride into work. Or, better, devour the chapters during the short time it takes to reel in that next brooktrout making its way toward your rubber waders and waiting creel.
Mike Tidwell is the author of the Peace Corps memoir The Ponds of Kalambayi.