Book Review: Norman MacLean's near-winner of the 1977 Pulitzer Prize, A River Runs Through It, and Other Stories
This novella and the two shorter stories that go with it confused me a little. "A River Runs Through It" is arguably much better by itself; the other two stories read more like genre fiction, even though they are elegantly told, and a certain poker game scene made me chuckle several times (I finished it on the ride home from church and I think my wife was concerned for my sanity). I’m just not sure this all hangs together as a book. With the shift in tone from the tragic, deeply personal nature of "A River Runs Through It", to the shenanigans of the U.S. Forest Service, not to mention the fact that the last two stories predate the first one resulting in some anticlimacticism, I can perhaps see why MacLean’s book is only a near-Pulitzer.
Then again, perhaps my interpretation of MacLean’s novel as a clumsy assortment of narratives is missing the point. MacLean does seem to have had a strong streak of the historian in him, and as a poet influenced by a poet/historian (he taught Shakespeare at the University of Chicago and every year told himself, “You better teach this (guy) so you don't forget what great writing is like”), it seems reasonable for MacLean to be interested in elevating his couple of informational narrative romps that verge on poetic to something more than just genre fiction, while also understanding that their force as historical documents cannot be compromised. That combination of poetry and pragmatism could actually be read as gutsy, even “cutting-edge,” and so any dismissiveness you hear in my intonation of the phrase “genre fiction” may be a mistake on my part. Either way, I don’t really care, because the novella that is "A River Runs Through It" is so beautiful it outshines any real failing the overall book has.
Look, I hate to fish, at least that’s my memory of it as a kid, I don’t really swim, and the beach can make me crazy, but this story’s engagement with fly-fishing, this thing I don’t really like and don’t understand, is so powerful and its embodiment of the story’s central theme about how someone can love something they don’t understand is so apt, I now feel emboldened to declare, “I love fly fishing.” See, my life has been changed! Not just because I enjoy pseudo-pretentious, semi-facetious, self-referential (and often self-effacing) communications, but also because I have learned yet another application of the oft-used phrase, “I love …!” However, if I choose to employ this phrase about fly-fishing, enabling me to launch into a detailed explanation of what I mean and the literary merit of MacLean’s novella, I should probably not open a conversation with this. I mean, first impressions can be dire, and if my audience has not yet learned to “love” me the misunderstanding a conversation like this could engender could end any real hope for a friendship … kind of like MacLean’s book. He didn’t win a Pulitzer but would he have if he had re-ordered his stories and made a different first impression, if he had led with the jokiness of "USFS 1919" and built up to the doomed athleticism and artistry of a brother’s fly fishing? Again, not a good conversation opener for most interactions, but perhaps something still worth batting around among very good friends.