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Casting for Literature : Fish stories can be nice diversions--or much, much more : THE BEST OF FIELD & STREAM: 100 Years of Great Writing From America's Premier Sporting Magazine, Edited by J.I. Merritt with Margaret G. Nichols and the editors of Field & Stream (Lyons & Burford: $25; 314 pp.) : A DIFFERENT ANGLE: Fly Fishing Stories by Women, Edited by Holly Morris (Seal Press: $22.95; 272 pp.)

June 04, 1995|John Casey | John Casey has written about outdoor sports for 25 years. In 1989 , his novel "Spartina" won the National Book Award

Writing about fishing is difficult for the same reason that writing about sex is. Most of us know the sensation of catching a fish, so there's a certain sameness about the climax. Good for life, not so good for art.

The man who hired Henry Miller and Anais Nin to write sex stories for him was always urging them to get to the actual sex faster. He didn't care for a larger context or meander. The editors of Field & Stream haven't given their writers much room to meander--or maybe the writers haven't been good enough to meander or don't have a larger context--so half of the stories are man-meets-fish, or man-meets-grouse, or elk or bear. There may be a little shimmy to the plot--a sigh for a good old dog or a good old pal or for the snows of yesteryear--but that's about it. I can imagine a situation in which I would be grateful for these stories--in fact I can remember one. A friend and I went to Baxter State Park in Maine to walk up Mount Katahdin. Our first day it rained buckets. We'd come on a whim--good shoes but only a quart jar of macaroni to eat and nothing to read. We wandered around the base in our ponchos, saw a small bear and admired the tall ferns. We were about to go back to our lean-to and be gloomy when we came upon a very small cabin in a glade. Nobody home. We peeked in. It was the Baxter State Park library, stocked with musty volumes--perhaps from public-library discards, perhaps from backpackers offloading already-read campfire reading. The "Best of Field & Stream" should be there, with a few mildew spots on the cover and some pencil-stub annotations in the table of contents. I imagine that the handwriting inspires literary trust.

There are 52 stories in the anthology, divided among fin, feather and fur, and these divisions are subdivided to cover fresh and saltwater fish (only trout get extra treatment), waterfowl and upland birds, and big-game--mostly North American--deer, elk, moose, several kinds of bear and one puma. It is possible that the editors had to compromise literary quality to cast a wide net. That would account for some of the numerous penciled notes saying "skip this" or "same old stuff." My hiking buddy has lit the kerosene lamp in the Baxter-State Park library cabin. I distract him from skimming a Frank Yerby historical romance by reading a joke from the introduction. In the editorial offices of Field & Stream the men's room was identified only by the picture of a pointer, the women's room only by a setter: " . . . anyone working for an outdoor magazine presumably knew bird dogs, or learned fast. But what about visitors?" The editors presumably found visitors' mistakes hilarious.

I turn the wick up to read further pencil-stub comments. "Belongs in Reader's Digest." I'm about to put the book back when I see three stars and the word gem. It's Norman Strung's account of his misspent youth as a member of a gang of dead-end kids who made raids from New York City to poach fish from the stocked ponds of fancy suburban fishing clubs, crawling up drainage culverts to flick their bait over the wire fences. It's OK that he's redeemed in the end from his juvenile delinquency by a kindly club member--he and his associates have invented a half-dozen pranks as stylish as the best subway graffiti.

There are a few stories marked "rip-roarin' yarn"--a bounty hunter killing a mountain lion with his knife, a guide and hunter wrapping themselves in the hide of a bear to survive an Alaskan blizzard, an English ne'er-do-well trekking from Capetown to Cairo in 1899 (simple but hearty Kipling fare), and a trapper cornered in a flimsy shack by a persistent grizzly. Most of the yarns are "as told to," and perhaps for that reason have a richer and gamier flavor than the usual recipes.

Speaking of flavor, one of the articles is about eating exotic meat. The pencil comment is "swagger." It is worth reading because you'd have to go far to find such an impenetrable density of boasting. Ate mastodon while dining with a wealthy industrialist, ate moose headcheese while hunting a murderer, drank tequila and Tabasco cocktails ("a jigger of each"), ate iguana--"These lizards are built like miniature dinosaurs but a good duck load of No. 4 shot will do the trick. Take out the innards, or leave them in it--it doesn't much matter." The envoi --"I've tried all of the dishes. Not only have I survived, I still have the main part of my digestive tract."

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