LESLIE STRAUSS TRAVIS
I know it’s uncool to admit an enthusiasm based in part on biography–it seems so louche–but I feel as if I’ve been following in Norman Maclean’s footsteps much of my life. Like him, I was born in Iowa and left at a young age; like him, I lived a portion of my early life in Missoula, Montana. I have, like him, worked as a fire lookout in the West, with a view of “more mountains in all directions than I was ever to see again–oceans of mountains,” as Maclean wrote in “USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky”; and I have fished rivers and creeks sparkling with the movement of cutthroat trout, per his instructions. Maclean spent his life attempting to reconcile his love of Chicago with his love of Montana, as I have mine for New York and New Mexico.
About once a year I still reach for my dog-eared copy of A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, and it never loses its power or its mystery. No other book I know has more evangelists, as it would have to, being a collection of two novellas and a story published by a university press, and now with beyond a million copies in print. My deep connection with the book–with the leisurely rhythms of the sentences, which matched the rhythms of my childhood spent fishing with my brother–had already blurred the distinction between life and literature, although of course I never suspected the book would one day prove prophetic. But it did twelve years ago, when, just as Norman loses his brother Paul to a violent death, a brother he loved but did not understand and could not help, I lost my own brother, at the age of 22, to a suicide with a semiautomatic rifle.
I’m not sure any sense can be made of his action, and anyway the details are not my concern here. But I do often find myself in the same position as Norman and his father, asking unanswerable questions, searching for something, some bit of redeeming truth to reckon with. There is a scene near the end of the title novella, in which the two of them talk about their son and brother.
“Do you think I could have helped him?” Norman’s father asks.
“Do you think I could have helped him?” Norman answers.
They stand silently, each of them waiting for an answer they know will never come. “How can a question be answered that asks a lifetime of questions?” Norman wonders.
Maclean would report receiving letters from people like me during the fourteen years he had left after the book was published in 1976. And he would go to his grave secure in the knowledge that anyone who’d fished with a fly in the Rockies and read his novella on the how and why of it believed it to be the best such manual on the art ever written–a remarkable feat for a piece of prose that also stands as a masterwork in the art of tragic writing.
Maclean, who was born in 1902, learned to write from his father, a Presbyterian minister who taught his son at home until he was 10. The morning was divided into three hourlong periods, during each of which Norman gave a fifteen-minute recitation. His father’s highest ideals were economy and precision with the English language; he wanted his son to grow up as an authentic American, with a mastery of the American written word. In the afternoons Maclean fished and played in the woods and learned how to be tough, toughness being one of the chief preoccupations of his late-life writing.