Friday, August 27, 2010

Fish as Metaphor and Reality

Sometimes as a youngster, you tried your hand at fishing.  The results were often more frustrating than the satisfying fishing stories so many of your friends tell, but if only in metaphor, you did catch something every bit as meaningful to you than the fish you did not catch.

Because it had never occurred to you to investigate fishing, your memory bites onto the tempting bait of your father, appearing before you, revealing to you with the same sense of importance as a rabbi unrolling a Torah, a display of small hooks.  "With these,"  he said, "You will be able to catch fish--" his hands spread to a remarkable width,"--this long.  First, you will need a line."  From is pocket he drew a tidy skein, black and shiny, radiant with the implication of tensile strength.  "And of course, something to attract the fish."  You were then led to the back yard, where a patch of sunburned grass awaited under a clothesline holder that reminded you of a saguaro cactus.  Your father, who was always gifted at producing things, showed you a shovel with which, in a single scoop of the earth under the clothesline, unearthed a clutch of worms. "Fish,"  he said, "are attracted to worms."

Your mother, who wanted no truck with worms, informed you that fish may also be attracted to tiny pieces of hamburger, chunks of bread, even pellets of peanut butter, none of which she had scruples about handling.

The early venues for your fishing expeditions were invariably what was called Westlake Park, now called MacArthur Park, in the lower reaches of Wilshire Boulevard in midtown Los Angeles.  There were indeed fish there, and beyond your ken of sensitivity, you spent considerable time there because, just across the street, were the offices of an eye surgeon-opthamologist whose patient you were in hopes of correcting a strabismus.  Although many fish were attracted to the various bait you set out for them (including worms you did not tell your mother about), none of them were motivated to fulfill your father's predictions.

Some years later, your fishing expeditions extended to the Santa Monica Pier at the far western extreme of Wilshire Boulevard, where you actually caught a fish or two but really learned how to fish by yelling obscenities at the fishermen on the incoming boats, provoking them to throw fish at you.

A hook in time became a word.  The line became a sentence.  The bait became, gradually an ironic statement and then, later still, what a character wanted, what a character dreamed of, or a character being forced to make a decision.

As you became more deeply involved with publishing, your fishing expeditions tended to be overtly social, arranged by printers and manufacturers and paper companies for their clients.  Thus your first experience with waders and a spinning reel which was guaranteed to bring forth rainbow and brown trout found you at the crack of sunrise, badly hung over, in the cold waters of eastern Tennessee, wondering about your balance.  Hush puppies and trout sauteed in bacon grease are, you discovered, excellent anodynes to the common hangover.  Ventures of a similar nature were repeated--sans hangover--off the coastlines of northern and central California, all of them having to do more with the social than the fishing.

Thus it is the metaphor of fishing rather than the act of fishing that attracts you.  He who is probably your closest friend, Barnaby Conrad, gets a gleam in his eye when you mention woolly buggers and other of the so-called dry fly fishing lures.  He is a catch-and-release man and although he has in fact written thirty-seven books, soon to be thirty-nine, he has no need to see a metaphor so much as the activity itself.  In the larger sense, this is true.  There is action and there is metaphor.  Action may become metaphor, but metaphor rarely becomes action.  Writing is about action, and even though Mr. Conrad is a catch-and-release man, he is not at all adverse to a trout fillet or two for breakfast of a late summer's morning after being out in the river with his four-beat cast and his instincts honed for where the big ones may be lurking, just below the surface.

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