"The literature of angling," William Humphrey writes, "falls into two genres: the instructional and the devotional. The former is written by fishermen who write, the latter by writers who fish." Humphrey, who has written two slender and ethereal books about fishing, falls into the second category. But the reverence of his devotion is leavened by humor, sly observation and self-mockery; his books are not merely classics of the genre, but they are also unique for their almost total lack of solemnity.
The first, The Spawning Run, was published by Knopf in 1970; now, alas, it is out of print and difficult to find. Only 80 pages long—and 80 small pages of large type, at that—it is the diary of a spring fishing vacation Humphrey and his wife took in England and Wales. One will look long and hard to find a funnier account of the upper-class English at play; Humphrey's descriptions of their amorous rompings (and his own) are hilarious. But at heart it is a book about going fishing, and one passage deserves to be quoted at length because of its wry wisdom and fine prose.
"Fishing demands faith. Faith like St. Peter's when the Lord bade him cast his hook into the water and catch a fish for money to pay tribute to Caesar. To catch a fish you have got to have faith that the water you are fishing in has got fish in it, and that you are going to catch one of them. You still may not catch anything; but you certainly won't if you don't fish your best, and you won't do this without faith to inspire you to do it.... The satisfactions of a day's fishing are deep; and just as deep on a day when you don't catch a fish; but unless, you keep faith that you are going to catch a fish that day, then fishing seems a waste—a waste of time, money, effort and, most depressing, a waste of spirit.... Few things can make a man feel more fully a man than fishing, if he has got faith; nothing can make a man feel more fully a fool if he has not got faith."
As Humphrey makes plain in his second fishing book, published this fall, even the most devoted and determined angler's faith can flag !n the face of a clever and obdurate fish. The book is My Moby Dick (Doubleday, $6.95), a substantial portion of which appeared recently in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Though the entire book is not much longer than the excerpt, it will be cherished by anyone who loves good fishing, good writing—and good book-making, for it is a lovely little volume.
Because most readers already know the outcome, it is giving away no great secret to say that this is the story of the one that got away—as, in fact, The Spawning Run is also. In one fashion or another, that is what all great fishing stories are about—not the catch but the chase, not the trophy on the wall but the empty-handed angler. From Moby Dick to The Old Man and the Sea, it's the fish that finally wins.
But Humphrey is too intelligent, inventive and complex a writer to tell just another fish story. For one thing, as its title suggests, My Moby Dick is carefully cast along the lines of Herman Melville's great tale of one man's obsessive quest for a whale of mythic proportions. The lines Humphrey casts are at once whimsical and serious. On the one hand, Melville's thunderous Captain Ahab is transformed into a mild-mannered writer, and the great white whale in the raging ocean becomes an oversized trout in a tiny pond. But on the other hand, Humphrey is saying that it's the obsession that counts, not the size of the quarry; unlike Ahab, he did not lose a leg to his fish, "but he had certainly taken a big bite of my brain."
That's the oldest fish story of all: "What happens is that the fish hooks the fisherman." Yet, when the trout finally defeats him, Humphrey finds liberation in loss. His fish, "old One-eye," leads him into angling at the most delicate and challenging level, "into the most rarefied realms of trout fishing...."
"Fishing stories always end with the fish getting away. Not this one. This, reader, has been the story of a fisherman who got away. For old One-eye made a changed man of me. No fish since him has ever been able to madden me again. I have hooked and lost some big ones in that time, but to each and all I have been able to say, 'Go your way. I have known your better, known him well, and there will never be his like again. You, however big you may be, are a mere minnow compared to my Moby Dick.' "
Lest the impression get about that Humphrey is merely a hapless angler who likes to tell fish stories, it should be said most emphatically that he is one of the best American writers of the day. Though not as well known as he deserves to be, he is the author of several distinguished novels (notably Home from the Hill and The Ordways) in which he writes about families and the yearning for home and roots. Pursuing those same themes, he published last year a memoir of his childhood called Farther Off from Heaven, two chapters of which were published in SI, and which is, in my judgment, among the finest of all American autobiographies.
As to his two fishing books, I suppose I'd give a slight edge to The Spawning Run because of its wonderful Englishmen. But choosing between the two is like choosing between Affirmed and Alydar—the company is too fast and the margin of difference too narrow, so bet on both of them.