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Finding Life’s Meaning at the End of a Fishing Line

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

THE FISH’S EYE

Essays About Angling

and the Outdoors

By Ian Frazier

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

164 pages, $20

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Ian Frazier is a fanatic when it comes to fishing. The New Jersey resident has dropped, flung and reeled lines from Manhattan’s banks of the Hudson River, along the Ohio River in downtown Cincinnati, in concrete-lined basins in city parks, on the Jersey shore and on the majestic trout streams of the Rocky Mountains. He’s stood in ice-clotted rivers during the depths of winter in Montana; he’s even become so engrossed with what the fish were eating--mayflies--that he’s joined the feast, eating flies until his belly was full. (The taste wasn’t bad, he writes, “sushi, basically, only grittier.”

Thankfully, he’s also such an incredible writer (“On the Rez” and “Great Plains”) that even readers who don’t care much about fishing will find in “The Fish’s Eye” a welcoming spot to sit and cast about pondering the depths of life. Frazier also offers an appreciation for nature in all forms, especially the urban variety.

In this collection of 17 fishing-related essays written over two decades, Frazier wades in deep on life’s important matters--the intrinsic joy found in nature, the wisdom of doing nothing and the incredible beauty of Rocky Mountain water running “clear and cold as chilled gin across lovely rocks in headlong flight.” He also takes a humorous look at life as seen through the fish-drunk eyes of the angler.

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“Bad Advice,” for example, tracks the awful suggestions he and fellow anglers have followed over the years, including the time his buddy Don, following a recipe in an outdoor cookbook, tried to make “Breakfast in a Paper Bag.” With Frazier watching, Don put strips of bacon in the bottom of the paper sack, broke an egg on top of them, folded the top of the sack and speared it with a stick, ready to hold it over open coals.

The recipe, Frazier explains, declared that the grease would coat the bottom of the bag as it cooked. “Somehow we both took this to mean that the grease, counterintuitively, actually made the bag less likely to burn. Marveling at the ‘who would have guessed’ magic of it, we picked a good spot in the hot coals ....” In a heartbeat, the bag burst into leaping flames. “Don was yelling for help, waving the bag around trying to extinguish it, scattering egg yolk and smoldering strips of bacon and flaming paper .... “

To Frazier, their heedless following of a book’s suggestion is emblematic of the larger truth about our species when we venture out-of-doors. “We go forth in abundant ignorance, near-blind with fantasy, witlessly trusting words on a page or a tip [from] a guy we’d never met before ....” Oh, but where that faith can take us: to snow-banked streams, amid cliffs of granite climbing heavenward from the river bank or to magical places where “tea-colored water pours steadily over lips as smooth as subway stairs.”

Frazier weaves seamlessly back and forth between the sublime and the trivial, offering profound viewpoints one minute, a lighthearted laugh the next. In advising fellow enthusiasts how to pursue the fishing obsession without making their families too mad, for instance, he advocates night outings: “[I]f you leave to go fishing with everyone tucked safely in bed and return after midnight with them still sleeping, you’re free and clear. Plus, you feel harmlessly sneaky, which is always important in a marriage.” He proclaims striped bass the perfect New York fish: “They go well with the look of downtown ... are pinstriped .... “

“Fishing Without Dad” is a poignant recounting of Frazier’s relationship with his father, who neither fished nor understood Frazier’s love of the sport. His father would sit and watch the author as a young boy fish with the “benign incomprehension you give to a dog worrying a leather toy .... “ When Frazier caught something, his father would croon, in pitying tones, “Ohhhh--let it go.” Frazier often thinks of his late father while fishing, experiencing a kind of communion when he catches a fish and prepares to release it:

“I hold the fish in the shallows and move it gently to revive it and I talk to it and I get dizzy with the sensation of being in a moment that neither of us will forget .... 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.”

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In these essays, Frazier’s metaphors leap like rainbow trout to mayflies, creating in words lasting moments that illuminate the many currents of his angling life.

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