The River Why by David James Duncan
Reviewed by Mark Bailey
At the end of The River Why, Gus, David James Duncan’s narrator explains that he wrote the book just so we could fully appreciate the last scene. Creating that appreciation is the same reason we launched Torrey House Press: to allow readers to enjoy the inexplicable spiritual experience made possible through connection with a natural landscape. Closely perceived landscape changes people. I like that. It is the ability of a writer like Duncan to take armchair adventurers like myself outside and guide me to a higher level of experience and awareness that has always attracted me to land- and nature-based fiction. I enjoy getting outside, but it’s not always possible, not always easy, not always warm and dry and comfortable. And besides, without a guide there is a universe of sights and connections to be potentially missed. With a well told tale, a good book in hand is the next best thing to being there. Better sometimes. But taking a reader on this transparent journey is not easy.
It took Duncan a whole novel to us get us to where we were ready to join Gus as he experiences a joyous, heart and soul shaking transcendence. I think it will take me a whole publishing company to try to do the same, God willing and the creek don’t rise. Torrey House Press wants to take enough readers into a higher and greater state of appreciation and awareness of the land and issues of the Colorado Plateau and American West that eventually, perhaps in some tiny part due to our efforts, our citizen-readers will make it clear to lawmakers, policy makers, and public land managers that the land is often worth more in its natural state than it is for its potential extractive purposes like grazing, mining and logging. First-rate literary fiction, like The River Why, can do that.
In reviews and searches, The River Why often shows up as a story about fly fishing. It’s a story about fly fishing about as much as Walden is a story about building a cabin. Instead, it’s a coming of age story set in the 1970’s, a love story, a tale full of exuberant, madcap characters and, finally, a tale of nature imbibed epiphany. Our protagonist, Gus Orviston, is a young man growing up in the suburbs of Portland, Oregon, who thinks that if he can just get away from his annoying parents and irrelevant school and be free to fish all the time he will be happy. I imagine I connect so closely with Why in part because of all I felt in common with young Gus. I grew up in the suburbs of the leeward side of the Coastal Range in Saratoga, California, much the same as Portland. His father was into fishing, mine into skiing. We both picked up on our dads’ passions in our own way. His family getaways were to mountain rivers, ours to mountain snow. Our birthdays are the same, May 22, and I even had the same Vietnam draft experience with the lottery: my sweet girlfriend, like his, angry at the government but warning me to be careful as I youthfully chose to ignore it; my parents, like his, unaware. Through the eyes of Gus we are led on a series of explorations into the wilds where the reader is treated to direct experience of the coastal rivers and forests. What begins as a physical journey becomes a spiritual one.
Duncan knew that after seeing the beauty and revelation that Gus experiences, we would all head up there with our camping gear and fly rods and love the place to death, so Duncan invents a fictitious Tamanawis river that becomes “The River Why.” In an early scene we float with a hung-over Gus in his canoe down his Tamanawis River in deep fog, with the big sea-run cutthroat trout run starting. As the river reaches the tidewater and the fog thickens along with the cold gloom, the fish quit biting and Gus snags a fly – on the sleeve of a freshly drowned fisherman. Gus is accosted by a horse pill wielding veterinarian and rescued by a philosopher who expands his humanity and makes him think a little more about life other than fishing. In a chapter called “The Warble of the Water Owl,” Gus is out for a solo picnic on a neighboring river when he spies a young woman fishing from a fallen tree with a 14 foot alder branch for a rod. When she hooks a big steelhead, she ends up following it into the river with nothing but the alder branch, her cutoff shorts and tank top left behind on the fallen tree. Later Gus tries to explain his presence from the top of tree while “warbling” incoherent poetry to her. She runs away all the same.
Gus explores more than water when he follows the remains of a suburban creek near where he grew up, from its headwaters on top of a three story bank building to the mouth at the Willamette where he saves the last trout in the stream, closing the door on the river and a phase of his life. Gus does so much fishing he has water on the brain. He heads upstream from his cabin to find the headwaters of the living, thriving Tamanawis and ends up out for the night with just his pipe and an apple in his pocket. While imagining a quest of a native Tillamook Indian in an earlier day Gus experiences his own. Finally, in “A Line of Light,” he is handed a three-pound line with a 30 pound Chinook salmon on the end by Eddy, the lightly clad fisherwoman, who has just found him and whom he is becoming love-sick over. All night long in the light of the moon on the river at Eddy’s behest, he gently follows the salmon upstream until finally he is able to reach face down into the icy water, exhausted, and hold the fish while it waits, be with it for a timeless moment, and release it. On the way back to his cabin, as the sun begins to rise, he experiences his own line of light :
And then I felt it—a sharp pain in the heart, like a hook being set. I whirled around: sunlight struck me full in the face. My eyes closed.
And then I saw it—the vertical bar—a line so subtle it must be made of nothing nameable. And it ran from my heart of earth and blood. Through my head, to the sky; ran like a beam of watery light; ran from the changing, flowing forms of the world to a realm that light alone could enter. But my pain grew sharper: mad with joy, I sank to my knees on the white road, and I felt the hand, resting like sunlight on my head. And I knew that the line of light led not to a realm but to a Being, and that the light and the hook were his, and that they were made of love alone. My heart was pierced. I began to weep. I felt the Ancient One drawing me toward him, coaxing me out of this autumn landscape, beckoning me on toward undying joy.
The hand was lifted. The nameless presence faded, and the light around me blended with the sunlight I knew. But in my heart the wound stayed, and the good hurt. I rose from the road, brushed off my knees, wiped my eyes and drew breath. Then I walked—though I knew that from this point on the road, and from this point in my soul, there was no escape, and nowhere to go.
I think it’s okay to assume that what hooked Gus’s heart was a water and light and wildness induced unification with Love. Eddy comes back that evening and stays the night, then a week, then 6 months and they get married with Gus’s little brother as best man and the rescuing philosopher as witness and speech maker. After a post-honeymoon fishing trip they come across Gus’s little brother hanging around with the chipmunks upon their return to Gus’s cabin. Gus soon realizes his brother is with a two-month-old baby, then that the baby is his sister, and then that the strangers he saw up the stream are his parents, fishing roles, attire, and attitudes reversed from how he thought he knew them. Gus is reduced, realization by realization, welcoming hug by hug, by the flood of love he feels, with his heart opened to a new palpable spaciousness, to speechless blubbering.
One winter Sunday in Salt Lake I was home alone for the afternoon. I sat in my west facing living room overlooking the valley, listening to Mozart, reading The River Why for perhaps the third time. Warmed by the slanting sun and carried by the music I blubbered right along with Gus. Duncan’s writing had taken me on the same spiritual journey that Gus experienced, and by this point I was just as in love with the land and the beauty and the characters as Gus was. It’s embarrassing to be this fond of a book. David James Duncan doesn’t even know me.
Here’s the thing, now that I’ve taken a breath and wiped my eyes. In the afterword celebrating the book’s twentieth anniversary, Duncan explains that he is never going to write a much-in-demand sequel. He has since moved away–in real life–from Oregon to Montana. There’s too much clear cutting, too much sprawl, too much public land devastation, too many rivers dammed and salmon runs ruined. He figures Gus wouldn’t have survived it. I respect his position, but it’s not too late; it never is. Torrey House Press seeks to find this generation’s Gus, to find the stories that help cool the ire of what Duncan calls “reactionary senators and hate-radio pundits,” to help heal the land – and so ourselves.