Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Our brother's keepers

A River Runs Through It and Other StoriesA River Runs Through It and Other Stories by Norman Maclean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Norman Maclean's only novella to date, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, consists of three semi-autobiographical short stories set in Western Montana.  In each story, we are introduced to a specific art and presented with a memorable portrait of a complex character. In the novella's titular story, A River Runs Through It, we learn about the art of fly-fishing and meet Norman's brother, Paul; in "Logging and Pimping and 'Your pal, Jim'", we read about the nature of logging as well as an enigmatic logging expert, Jim; finally, in "USFS 1919: The Ranger, the Cook, and a Hole in the Sky," our characters pass their time playing cribbage, eventually betting on the mysterious and dislikable cook - a cardshark - to win big in Hamilton, helping them "clean out town" at the end of the summer.

Bill, the ranger from "USFS 1919," calls the cook an artist; yet the true artist of the novella is in A River Runs Through It: Paul. Our narrator, Norman, speaks of Paul as an artisan multiple times throughout the story, even calling his fishing stick "a wand."
"At the end of this day, then, I remember him both as a distant abstraction in artistry and as a closeup in water and laughter"
As is the case with so many artists, however, Paul is reckless, troublesome and hard to understand. Everyone in Paul's family adores him and wants to help him - yet the difficulties of both articulating and accepting a help offering stand between them until the final, irreversible end.

The difficulty of extending a helping hand is already captured at the beginning of the story, where Norman humorously admits that giving advice on fly-fishing could pose a "strain on family relations" if not carefully expressed. It's one of those relatable sibling problems where giving tips and suggestions is considered offensive/inappropriately authoritative/nosy. And it is because of this, a problem equally noted in the first part of Paul's father's claim, that Paul is so tragically unhelp-able: "Help," he said "is giving part of yourself to somebody who comes to accept it willingly and needs it badly." The difficulty of mutual understanding is also captured through fly-fishing, particularly in the scene where both brothers are shouting at each other across a raging river, unable to fully interpret the other's words. "Finally, we understood each other," is the remark Norman makes about the end of that conversation - but sadly, it is not a truth he can declare at the end of the story.
“In the loneliness of the canyon I knew there were others like me who had brothers they did not understand but wanted to help. We are probably those referred to as "our brother's keepers," possessed of one of the oldest and possible one of the most futile and certainly one of the most haunting instincts. It will not let us go.”
Neal Burns, the brother of Norman's wife in the story, is another example of a brother who needs help but doesn't accept it. In stark contrast to Paul, Neal is much less likeable, less adventurous, more preened ("Jessie's brother Neal stepped off the train trying to remember what a Davis Cup tennis player looked like") and, to Paul's disgust, fishes with worms (instead of flies). Yet like Paul, he is the subject of worry for those around him; Jessie's family hopes that fishing with the Macleans, the "preacher's sons," will correct Neal's morals, while "Old Rawhide," a horsewoman-turned-whore, thinks that she can help Neal ("He's my man," she keeps insisting).

The frustration and sadness Norman feels about his inability to help is eloquently voiced by both himself and his father:
"Tell me, why is it that people who want help do better without it - at least, no worse. Actually, that's what it is, no worse. They take all the help they can get, and are just the same as they always have been."
"So it is that we can seldom help anybody. Either we don't know what part to give or maybe we don't like to give any part of ourselves. Then, more often than not, the part that is needed is not wanted. And even more often, we do not have the part that is needed. It is like the auto-supply shop over town where they always say, 'Sorry, we are just out of that part.'"
Yet the moving beauty of such a relationship is this:
"But we can still love them - we can love completely without complete understanding.”
“Do you think I could have helped him?” Norman's father asks. “Do you think I could have helped him?” answers Norman in response. As he accurately remarks, How can a question be answered that asks a lifetime of questions? 

But sometimes, as Norman says, "Help doesn't have to be anything that big."
He asked me, "Do you think your mother helps him by buttering his roll?" 
"She might," I told him. "In fact, yes, I think she does."
Does Norman help Paul by taking him fishing? Yes, I think he does.

In the novel, Maclean also portrays a magical quality of the river, and the way it shapes not only rocks and geology, but also our stories and our lives. The water has a certain power over its fishermen ("Eventually, the watched joined the river, and there was only one of us. I believe it was the river") as well as an inclusivity ("As the heat mirages on the river in front of me danced with and through each other, I could feel patterns from my own life joining with them.")

Maclean uses the metaphor of a story to write about "reading the water," and how "it is much easier to read the waters of tragedy." It is thus fitting that he says, "stories of life are often more like rivers than books." For the river that he writes about, Big Blackfoot, was the family river that ran throughout his life, the medium that connected both him and his brother, the landscape in which he witnessed an artist at work, the place where the "Dance of Death" of a fish would foreshadow his brother's, the one place where came closest to understanding and helping Paul.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.”
If I eventually do become an English teacher/professor, A River Runs Through It is a story I want to teach. It is at once humorous (the hilarious shock of seeing not two "bears," but two "bare asses") and poignant. This may sound childish, but I feel so joyous to have a beautiful short story I can call my all-time favourite.
“One of life's quiet excitements is to stand somewhat apart from yourself and watch yourself softly becoming the author of something beautiful even if it is only a floating ash.”
“Many of us would probably be better fishermen if we did not spend so much time watching and waiting for the world to become perfect.”

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