Gierach's latest essay book on life and fly fishing -- No Shortage of Good Days
-- breaks no new ground, but given the deeply autobiographical nature of Gierach's work, that's probably good news.We immerse ourselves in Gierach's world for his simple, often-humorous insights--- and a glimpse into a simple life built around fly fishing, and it would be difficult to get that fix if he was hanging from helicopters in a former soviet republic or crowding a camera lens yelling "badass!" over and over.
Fortunately, no high fives mar Gierach's latest effort, and you can either be thankful or disappointed, though given Gierach's ability to sell books, it seems many fishermen happily chose the former.
In No Shortage of Good Days, Gierach offers the usual mix of essay subjects, and though this book feels like it rambles a teensy bit more than his earlier efforts, he still delivers the goods, and does so in a way that invokes what I'll loosely call "the larger picture."
When you reach your mid-60s it seems natural to tumble the larger picture around in your head a lot more than when you were 35, and while Gierach isn't threatening to retire (then again, I didn't ask), he is writing passages like this:
My generation has been especially prone to this kind of foolishness, and I'm not the only one of us who woke up in his early 40s--- with not much more than a pot to piss in--- thinking, Okay, I'm functionally self-aware and I know how to fish. Now what? On the other hand, fishing when the fishing is as good as you've seen it in years can seem like a civic duty. And for that matter, it's comforting to live by your wits in one of the few places left on earth where your wits are sufficient. In the end, you may never get it exactly right--- Annie Dillard said, "There is no shortage of good days; it's good lives that are hard to come by" --- but it's still worth trying.
This book lacks the darker edge of Grave of the Unknown Fisherman and the optimistically uplifting feel of his earliest books, and the latter is wholly understandable -- if your perspective doesn't shift over the course of 25 odd years, then you might want to check yourself for signs of fossilization.
What emerges is a snapshot of a fly fisherman who has made a choice many of us wonder if we should have made--- and is now looking hard at the significance of it.
To his credit, he doesn't exactly flinch from the looking, nor does he populate the book with droning monologues about what it all means. It's just included along with the reports about which flies worked best on which streams, and somehow, he makes it seem relevant.
The Small Stuff
One aspect of No Shortage of Good Days immediately captured my interest; what appeared to be a real spike in Gierach's love affair with small waters.
He does the big-water trips to Baja and for Atlantic salmon, but a surprising chunk of the book was devoted to smaller waters and even smaller fishing parties, and like it always is with Gierach, I found myself moving through his essays, nodding along at what feel like "universal" insights (like most of humanity, I mistakenly assume the rest of the universe shares my exact tastes).
Outside of the small stream efforts, a favorite essay was titled "Cheating," which offered something of a history of some of fly fishing's class wars (nymphing, etc). Like many of the essays in the book, I wished it had gone longer.
No Shortage of Good Days also showcases Gierach's ability to wrap seemingly insignificant details into his narrative which add immeasurably to the story, and I fully admit that I don't really know how he does that.
It's very easy to drown your words in details that appear superfluous, and in fact, it almost always turns out they are.
In Gierach's case, mentioning the combined smell of diesel fuel and cow flop in the same breath he uses to describe the best steak dinner he ever ate shouldn't necessarily work, but there it is (and yes it does).
Gierach's best skill as a writer has always been his ability to wander through a fishing trip, picking out the relevant pieces and enhancing the narrative with insight gained elsewhere--- all of which happens just prior to the reader's arrival at a point he often never saw coming.
The one aspect often explored with less depth than before are the characters accompanying him on his fishing trips; we got to know people like AK Best, Ed Engle and Mike Clark in some depth, yet those populating Gierach's modern essays seem less fully revealed.
Gierach suggests that's simply because he doesn't have three decades of history with most of today's fishing buddies, and that he's traveling alone more often ("It's a recession," he said. "Everybody's broke.")
The Big Finish
I'm tempted to suggest the obvious; with 16 essay books still in print (dating back to 1986, a remarkable record), those who like Gierach will buy this book because it's recognizably his work, and those that don't like his work won't be swayed by a review.
In that vein, one of the worst things a writer can hear is that their latest effort is basically more of the same, but in this case, this is more wholly recognizable Gierach writing, which could be a bad thing if so many of us didn't put down his last book wishing he'd tacked on just one more essay (and one more after that, and...).
No Shortage of Good Days offers us the usual engrossing mix of straight reportage, insight, and goofy anthropomorphism alongside a larger perspective on a life that most of us envy, yet couldn't (or won't) embrace, and that aspect of it made it seem engrossing and relateable.
Excerpts From No Shortage of Good Days
Gierach on Steelheading
"So you fish well to the bitter end, telling yourself, truthfully, that how well you do something is probably more important than why you do it. If you have the disposition for it, this is a better way than most to spend your time, even if you never hook that wild twenty-pound steelhead. You'll hear fishermen talk about being humbled by a river and we all know what that means and how it feels, but but somehow the language of competition doesn't quite ring true. It's not so much that the river beats you; it's more that the river doesn't even know you're there."
Gierach on Local Water
"I've always been fascinated by fishermen's peculiar fondness for certain local water, and I mean my own as well as others. Sometimes it's so obvious it amounts to a cliche, like the lake at the old summer cabin or the secret honey hole where you always hike in by a different route so as not to wear a trail others might follow. But just as often it's a spot that's too popular and crowded, too trashy, or a second-rate stream that you have a soft spot for in spite of the fish being small and far between."
Gierach on Ego
"I have met some high-brow fishermen who bragged that they only fished at the best places with the best guides at the best times of the year and who claimed to not only always catch fish, but to always catch lots of real big ones. If true, a life without drama must be awfully boring, and if false "” as you have to suspect "” then lugging around an ego that requires that much preening must be a terrible burden."
Gierach on Bluelining
"The idea is to fish obscure headwater creeks in hopes of eventually sniffing out an underappreciated little trout creek down an un-marked dirt road. Why is another question. I suppose it's partly for the fishing itself and partly to satisfy your curiosity, but mostly to sustain the belief that such things are still out there to find for those willing to look."
Gierach on Home Water
"I think the need for these places is genetically encoded, which is why we all had our secret spots as kids. At first it was behind the couch or under the bed, but eventually we got our legs under us and ventured outside. If were weren't lucky enough to have a patch of woods and a creek close by, there was at least an alley or a vacant lot or an unlandscaped corner of a friend's back yard that we could claim as our own because no one else was using it."
Gierach on... Life?
"Roughly along the same lines, being left alone to do something you love is a rare pleasure that's denied to many, but some are more suited to it than others. I won't get all New Age about this, but even if you're not your own best friend, you should still at least be able to stand your own company.
In my case, lots of solitude on my home water has trained me to be a low-key, persistent, and appreciate fisherman, but it has also made me too shy of crowds and noise to ever be comfortable in the twenty-first century. But then I've always had this tendency to go a little overboard. For most, there'll be more of a happy medium."