If you're one of those who complain that novels aren't being written the way they used to be, or applaud that fact, here's another for your collection: The River Why, by David James Duncan. This novel about fishing the coastal rivers of Oregon for steelhead and salmon is very much free-form; it's also, by turns, hilarious, boring, incisive, windy, terse, purple, a pleasure and a pain. Another shifty thing about The River Why is that it's published by the Sierra Club (Random House, distributor, $12.95). Everyone knows the Sierra Club doesn't publish novels; it publishes beautiful posters of sunrise on Mount Rainier to remind us not to pollute the Hudson River. It published The River Why because it just happened to like the manuscript, which arrived on its doorstep by accident. That's the Sierra Club's story, anyway.
Duncan, 31, takes his protagonist, 20-year-old Gus Orviston, into the wilderness and along burgeoning streams with his fly rod, introducing him to Indians, hippies, a talking dog and a singing mouse, an alleged philosopher, several small boys, himself and, of course, a beautiful, nubile girl with whom he falls desperately in love. That's all the plot you're going to get from me, and there's precious little more from Duncan, for that matter.
Because The River Why is a serious work by a serious artist, pre-publication critics have decided that it's only superficially a book about fishing, just as Don Quixote is hardly a book about horseback riding or Gulliver's Travels a book about midgets; really, they say, The River Why is a search for The-Meaning-Of-It-All. This notion demeans Duncan's purpose. He knows precisely what The-Meaning-Of-It-All is; he, too, has heard the words of that pungent pundit, Victor Herbert: "Ah, sweet mystery of Life, at last I've found you..." and he knows that The-Meaning-Of-It-All is a four-letter word. No, The River Why isn't a book about such a fruitless quest. It's a book about fishing, and you don't have to know the difference between a reel and a creel to appreciate its good qualities; indeed, it may help not to.
Among those qualities is Gus's description of the land "south of the Columbia and north of California" where "scores of wild green rivers come tumbling down out of the evergreen, ever-wet forests of the Coast Range.... They like to run fast through the woods, roaring and raising hell during rainstorms and runoffs.... But when they get within a few miles of the ocean they aren't so brash...just slip along in sullen silence as though they thought that if they snuck up on the Pacific softly enough it might not notice them, might not swallow them whole the way it usually does...." The description goes on for a half-dozen paragraphs of superb nature writing at the start of Book Two. Gus tells us, too, of his friendship and communication with a pair of steelhead smolts in his cabin aquarium in words that make you feel good that you have eyes to read. Of the time when he caught a trout in a filthy stream and released it in the Willamette: "...as its gills began to work, as it began to breathe the comparative purity of the river, as it sensed something of the vastness of its new home, it hung near the surface for a long instant, then darted forward, disappearing like a thought in the marbled green depths." Of meeting a man with "...weatherbeaten skin, rough clothes, bright green eyes, a kind smile; yet he had a last-apple-before-the-frost quality, as if he had an old dog that just died and his smile was to keep from crying." Yes, Duncan can write, and you can sense he's going to get better with time and practice.
It's his judgment or, rather, lapses in it that get him into trouble. He enjoys occasionally pushing off a paragraph from the top of a phrase and watching it roll willy-nilly down the page, just to see how and where it will end up. Too often it ends in confusion and nowhere. Duncan needs discipline and, until he develops it, an editor; he doesn't supply the former and the Sierra Club didn't supply the latter.
Duncan burdens the start of his chapters with two, three, sometimes four quotations from Shakespeare, the Koran, Izaak Walton, Thoreau or various German, Greek and Indian poets and mystics. If he's trying to impress us with the breadth of his reading—which I doubt—it's pretentious; if he's giving us a hint of what's coming, it's unnecessary; if he's using them to say something he feels he's unable to say himself, he should screw up his courage and try.
Now we come to the part that led those pre-publication critics astray. Duncan allows Gus to speculate, at times of stress, on the condition and destination of his immortal soul; he allows Gus to be impressed by the dime-store mouthings of a self-anointed "philosopher" who's more faker than fakir; he indulges Gus far too long in the fearful writhing and hell of supposed unrequited affection; away from streamside, where Gus's expertise and admirable powers of observation don't come much into play, he allows Gus a general sappiness of thought and expression that is simply embarrassing. Only a portion of this can be excused on the ground that this mighty young fisherman has done little else but fish since he was three years old.
So what does this advisory add up to? Because The River Why is a first novel, you're being offered the opportunity, for a comparatively reasonable price, to be the first on your block to sample the talent of a new young voice in American fiction, a voice that catches and stutters a bit and occasionally runs away with itself, but one that speaks the language well. Take it. Like observing the spread of a beneficent new idea, watching a talent grow can be fun.