The Fish's Eye
Ian Frazier
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buy THE FISH'S EYE online The Fish's Eye: Essays About Angling and the Outdoors

Ian Frazier
Farrar Straus & Giroux
192 pages
April 2002
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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Say you've never fished, cannot envision yourself fishing, have no earthly idea why fishermen (and women) are so dedicated to the sport? Think that for those reasons there's no way you could possibly wring enjoyment out of essayist Ian Frazier's The Fish's Eye? Think again.

As a child growing up in small-town South Dakota, I had plenty of opportunities to try my own small hand at fishing. My father was and still is an avid outdoorsman - if he's got free time (sometimes even if he doesn't), odds are good that he's dipping a line. Although he hunts in-season regularly - deer, antelope, and pheasants, mostly - it's fishing that's his true love. He's preparing to retire, ready to finally get some constant use out of the boat he purchased several years back. He hauls his ice-fishing hut onto a nearby frozen lake every winter with a few buddies, and can spend full days in that space crammed with ice augers, a portable heater, fishing gear and tackle, crouched over a neat round hole in the ice, waiting for a bite on the baited hook.

My family spent a whole lot of Saturdays shore-fishing on the east bank of the Missouri, two lines for every man, woman and child driven into the sandy shore in front our coolers and blankets and fires and camp chairs and Coleman lanterns. One of my father's favorite spots was surrounded by grazing cattle, and my brother and I would sometimes go walking up into the pastured hills, kicking at forbidden dry cowpies and snagging thistles and cactus thorns on our socks and shoelaces, or collecting weird bleached pieces of driftwood washed up and dried out along the river, or peering and poking in morbid fascination at fully defleshed skulls of small mammals or half-rotted fish corpses or empty snapping turtle shells. You had to watch for rattlesnakes, although you were more likely to spot a "friendly" bullsnake than a rattler. Though I remember those days with a sentimental dose of nostalgia, I grew into an adult who has no interest in fishing (don't even get me going on hunting) myself.

But it really doesn't matter one whit how much interest you might or might not have in the subject of fishing before opening up The Fish's Eye. Ian Frazier, frequent contributor to The New Yorker and author of On the Rez and Coyote v. Acme, though unlike my father in as many ways as I can imagine, shares with him that overweening obsession for fishing, and he brings his education, experiences, triumphs and humiliations involving his hobby (you can be sure "hobby," however, is far too innocuous a term for it) into preternatural focus for the lucky readers who encounter this series of essays about angling and the outdoors. While he may not be the world's most successful fishermen, there's no question Frazier's got a talent for putting words together. Passages like this one from "An Angler at Heart," which is a profile of the late Jim Deren of the Angler's Roost, leave readers wide-eyed and mesmerized:

Then I made a good, long cast under a spruce bough to a patch of deep water ringed with lanes of current, like a piece of land in the middle of a circular freeway-access ramp. This patch of water had a smooth, tense surface marked with little tucks where eddying water was boiling up from underneath. My fly sat motionless on this water for a time that when I replay it in my mind seems really long. Then a fish struck so hard it was like a person punching up through the water with his fist. Water splashed several feet in the air, and there was a flash of fish belly of that particular shade of white--like the white of a horse's eye when it's scared, or the white of the underside of poplar leaves blown by wind right before a storm--that often seem to accompany violence in nature. The fish ran downstream like crazy (I don't remember setting the hook), then he ran upstream, then he ran downstream again. He jumped several times--not arched and poised, as in the sporting pictures, but flapping back and forth so fast he was a blur.
Or, from the same piece, a richly "textured" sketch of the fishing tackle shop proprietor's physical attitude:
Like a psychiatrist, Deren is usually seated. I have seen him outside his shop only once--when, as I was leaving, he came down in the elevator to pick up a delivery on the first floor. (Ambulant, he seemed to me surprisingly nimble.) It is appropriate for Deren to be seated all the time, because he has tremendous repose. There is a lot of bad repose going around these days: the repose of someone watching a special Thursday-night edition of Monday Night Football; the repose of someone smoking a cigarette on a ten-minute break at work; the repose of driving; the repose of waiting in line at the bank. Deren is in his sixties. The fish he has caught, the troubles he has been through, the fishing tackle he has sold, the adventures he has had lend texture to his repose. On good days, his repose hums like a gyroscope.
Frazier's fishing milieu runs the gamut from inside New York City to Montana's awesome landscape, and his compatriots (and sometime competitors) tight-lipped rural locals, inner-city extended families, and the silent ranks of dedicated striper anglers, walking in a quiet crowd of loners down to the water in the wee dark hours of the morning. He sees the natural world through a dual lens of slightly cynical adult wit and an innocent, almost childlike awe.  In "Fishing Without Dad," Frazier shares the bittersweet memories of his oddly present non-fishing father:
My father died some years ago. If I had fished with him, I would now miss him on the stream; but, as I never did, he is still with me as much as ever. I often fish with friends, but I grew up fishing alone, and I still like to fish alone. When I do, the sense of my father as present in his absence is especially strong. If I get skunked, I reflect on the satisfaction he would feel that I had not injured anything today; and if I catch a fish, i sometimes see it through his pitying eyes...I hold the fish in the shallows and move it gently to revive it and I talk to it and get dizzy with the sensation of being in a moment that neither of us will forget. I tell the fish that I didn't mean to shake up its day and that I hope it will be all right and that it's a wonderful fish and that I hope it will never get caught again. And I feel scarily close to the fish's complex life that went on before and that will go on after, and close to my anxious, uncomprehending father, wherever he may be...I hear my father's "Ohhhh--let it go" as the fish swims away.
And Frazier devotees will clap in delight at the trademark humor in "In the Brain," an hilarious piece celebrating the human mind's ability to get stuck repeating mindless phrases (he recalls one trout-fishing episode when the name "Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel" cycled in a seemingly infinite loop in his brain) or annoyingly infectious songs ("among outdoor enthusiasts between the ages of forty and fifty-two who do repetitive-motion activities like rowing, long-distance cycling, jogging, or hiking, fully 37 percent have the words to the song "in-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" echoing in their brains"). The range and depth of emotion and "I-know-just-what-he-means" any reader will encounter in The Fish's Eye makes it both a great introduction to Frazier's skills as an essayist for newbies and a gotta-have for old fans.

© 2002 by Sharon Schulz-Elsing for Curled Up With a Good Book

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