I don't get much of an opportunity to review fiction, but I was recently sent a novel by outdoor writer Randy Kadish with a fishing history theme, and thus relished the opportunity to review a work that combines three of my favorite things: fishing, history, and fiction.
The Fly Caster Who Tried to Make Peace With the World (Saw Mill River Press, 2007) has one of those unwieldy titles reminiscent of Japanese novels such as Yukio Mishima's The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. Like many Japanese works, at its core, Kadish's ambitious book is about love and loss, with fly fishing being the central thread tying disparate times and places into the narrative.
The protagonist is Ian Mac Bride, the only son of a successful lawyer and stay-at-home mother in turn-of-the-century New York City. Ian's story begins with a crash course on both life and loss; he is introduced by his ailing mother to the New York City lower classes through her charity work with immigrants. In a sense, it is a book about how one man discovers the truth about the world, from the squalid working conditions of the slave wage seamstress to the searing pain of personal loss. As the author writes often on the spirituality and recovery offered by fly fishing, this theme should surprise no one.
From the beginning, Ian finds an outlet in fly casting. Witness to a great fly casting tournament in Central Park in which he first comes across legendary fly fisherman George M.L. La Branche, he is hooked by the casting bug, and under the tutelage of a young Jewish immigrant fly caster learns to handle a fly rod himself. From this point, his journeys bring him into contact with a host of fishing characters, usually during his angling forays on the famed Beaverkill River. Most of the characters such as La Branche help Ian to learn the important life lesson that around every corner is tragedy and loss, but also love and beauty.
The senselessness of World War I (and his mother's teachings) helps turn Ian into a pacifist, which puts him at odds with his own sons during the turbulent 1930s. Struggling to make sense of a world gone awry, Ian uses fly fishing as a way to connect to both the past and the present--it is fly fishing that helps him remember his youth and to connect with his youngest son. But in the end, the question remains: is it enough?
There is much to like about this book. While the prose can at times be stilted, the story does propel the reader along through a myriad of historical places in an engaging and effective manner. The entire novel is told as a long flashback, which from a structural stand point may seem a bit trite but, considering the options, may have been the best choice for this material. Above all, Kadish is ambitious. His enthusiasm for fly casting and fishing comes through on every page, and his belief in the mystical and spiritual qualities of fly fishing comes through more starkly than any writer since Norman Maclean. While no one will mistake Kadish for Maclean, in a sense both authors are "haunted by waters," to borrow a last line from the erstwhile University of Chicago professor.
From the standpoint of history, the book is a fairly accurate portrayal of the state of period fly fishing, casting, and rodmaking. There are a few anachronisms; the purchase of a spinning rod in the early 1930s and a reference to Pinky Gillum two decades or so before he started making rods being the most glaring. But the nature of New York City life at the turn of the century, the impact of the era of total war, and above all else the changes to fly fishing are all faithful, or at least as faithful as one can expect from a novel. The one major criticism I have is that a professional editor would have helped to tighten up the prose on this work.
A great writer once told me that a first novel is important for only one reason: to prove to the author (if no one else) that they can sustain a story from start to finish without collapsing somewhere in the middle. Kadish's first novel The Fly Caster Who Tried to Make Peace With the World is a worthwhile read for anyone who has ever picked up a fly rod, and it will certainly be interesting to see what Randy Kadish has in store for the future.
The book is available from Amazon and other merchants.
-- Dr. Todd