Between the Pages: The River Why (David James Duncan)

The River Why David James Duncan

The River Why
David James Duncan

As I was first scrolling through my English teacher’s list of recommended books to find one that could fit into my thesis project, I most definitely ignored David James Duncan’s The River Why. As someone who has absolutely no idea what the difference is between fly-fishing and bait-fishing, I figured that I would be equally indifferent towards a novel (with a fish hook as the cover art) about Gus the fishing prodigy.

Fortunately, I couldn’t have been more wrong: as soon as Gus introduced me to his parents and asked me to consider whether large quantities of water near a person’s anterior should elicit similar results as a small quantity of water inserted in a human posterior would, I was hooked (by Duncan’s humorous writing and memorable depictions of characters, that is).

Born to parents who share a passion for fishing and essentially nothing else, Gus Orviston was raised in a household that “never questioned…when he failed fifth grade: he’d passed the one intelligence test recognized in the house; he fished as skillfully as [his parents]” (Duncan 19). Such is the environment that surrounds Gus daily; consumed by his love for the sport, and perhaps even a desire to seek validation from his parents through the only manner he knows, he rejects everything not related to fishing. Thus, the conversations at the house of Orviston are exclusively limited to fishing and Ma and H2O’s arguments about Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, the family’s Bible (on fishing). For Gus, the book seemed to allude to “a thing completely alien to [his] experience…a nebulous Personage men call God,” and he concludes that the classic “was a misnamed antique of no use to any pure incarnation of fishermanliness” (such as himself), for he had failed to “see the least evidence of His existence” (Duncan 38). So until God decides to appear before him, Gus vows to just keep fishing, though it’s evident that he cannot “just keep fishing.” Despite Gus’s almost-ridiculous obsession with fishing, we see him longing for something else: after recounting several incidents where he would secretly leave fish—sometimes attached with coins and medicine—for struggling students and families to stumble upon, he begins to question why his father, a renowned angler, cannot use his prowess to stop people from polluting the waters where others can fish to sustain themselves. For the first time, Gus attempts to place a purpose into his fishing; unfortunately, he immediately chooses to “stop wondering and just try to fish” (Duncan 50).

Still, the inner dilemma of what fishing means to him continues, and his repression of this conflict finally explodes the day his parents fail to understand his feelings about Garbage Gut and he sets Nimjinsky, the symbol of the family’s bond and its past (or as Gus calls it, the source of all the bullshit), on fire. And in a single move, the family dynamic is forever changed, because Nimjinsky had become an unnecessary token, instead subconsciously burdening the family with the idea that their strongest bond was fishing, rather than themselves, that by not constantly discussing fishing, they were not properly paying their respects to their heritage. After a moment of silence, the house erupts in laughter, “a kind he hadn’t heard in his house all his life,” one no longer controlled or pressured by the mummy of a dead fish — a genuinely happy laugh.

Nevertheless, Gus has set his mind on carrying out his Ideal Schedule in an isolated and small cabin on the River Tamanawis. But while he “proceeds to fish all day, every day, first light to last… he [doesn’t] have one happy memory of it” (Duncan 75). By forcing his mind and body to concentrate solely on fishing, Gus has instead turned it into an assignment, filled with only statistics and devoid of joy and inspiration. His month of solitude had left him disjointed, restless and dissatisfied; in fact, he seemed to have become downright insane, naming and conducting conversations with his fish and gear. When Bill Bob and the rest of his family visit, Gus recalls that “for the first time since leaving home [he] felt sort of happy” (Duncan 79). His objective of finding happiness through constant fishing only leads to his disintegration, and only when he re-establishes a human connection —with Bill Bob, nonetheless, the only family member who has zero interest whatsoever in fishing—does he find himself able to again appreciate the silence, the sounds of nature and the colors surrounding him. This idea of an intrinsic and fundamental human bond appears in my previous novel, Karen Bender’s Refund, as well. In one of the short stories, Ginger, an eighty-year old swindler, has no friend, family or anyone willing to feel for her. Yet once she meets Darlene, Ginger recognizes that the piece missing within her is a product of her desire for compassion and empathy, and that that piece is one that she is willing to give up all of her possessions to acquire.

Perhaps the single most transformative event for Gus, though, is his encounter with Abe, the dead fisherman whom he fishes out of the river. As he recovers, he realizes that while he, H2O and too many other fishermen seek to “immortalize the ancient art, the immortality or mortality of the artist was of no moment to them” (Duncan 110). The soul he saved from the Tamanawis was not just that of Abe’s. It was his own. In that moment, the fanatical fisherman in him died, and Gus the Fisherman was born. Immediately after this incident, and in arguably the most beautiful chapter in this novel, Gus embarks on his journey to restore the motivations in and the significance of his life by visiting his neighbors and subtly transforming into a true fisherman, a man who offered free fishing lessons to the kids, a man who saved the corpse from the river, a man who, well, was a neighbor and a friend. It was never just fishing that made Gus happy, never the statistics concerning weight, length or kind; it was always the harmony with nature, the awe and respect for the river and its fish, that captivated him.

Since then, Gus begins to dabble in philosophy, even borrowing books from Titus to read during his spare time. No longer the nineteen-year-old boy voted Mr. Most-Out-Of-It by the senior class nor the only high school student who couldn’t differentiate between Wall Street and the Great Wall, Gus engages in activities that, he discovers, are equally meaningful and enjoyable as fishing. Because really, what does he have to lose? His unhappiness, Titus tells him (Duncan 169).

After opening the doors to the world around him, Gus is introduced to various exceptional characters; one in particular, Nick, leaves a lasting impact on him: a fisherman too, Nick (and the scar on his hand) inspires Gus to discover what it all means—what the river, the hooks and the fish meant to him—and to maybe stumble upon the Being, the Ancient One, referenced in The Compleat Angler and Nick’s story. So he walks alongside the Tamanawis, its curves and turns relentlessly asking him, “Why?” until he reaches the source, thinking it contains all his answers. But once there, he realizes something else: “he had been trying to make a church out of the source of the Tamanawis,” but “even a mecca isn’t worth much if it’s not a place inside you more than a place in the world” (Duncan 246). And finally, Gus gets it. The source of happiness and of our essence is everywhere. Only temporal happiness has definite and palpable sources for worship—money, luxury items and other materialistic needs, for absolute happiness exists in both the big and the small delights that accumulate into what we call a fulfilling life. Happiness stems from within and manifests in the elements that we ourselves treasure and deem essential, but because Gus had previously limited his happiness to fishing, he failed to comprehend that fishing, like the river source, could and would never force upon him any revelations or enjoyment, as it was only a tangible starting point for Gus to begin his profound pilgrimage to understanding himself.

When Eddy subsequently enters the scene, Gus is launched into the final phase of his transformation — love. The emptiness that he had felt in the cold rain—the undoing of Gus’s understanding of his single passion and purpose—is filled and replaced with Eddy’s love. Along with his newfound sense of self and security, Gus discovers that fishing certainly isn’t life’s most important facet; rather, the conversations with Bill Bob, with Eddy and with Titus, the memories of Ma shooting down a rabid dog from a block away, the time spent reading books or the newspaper— all the things that he had never shown interest in before — are what truly characterize him and allow his life to blossom into one that intertwines fishing and happiness.  But perhaps Gus’s greatest surprise is this new fishing experience: it’s infinitely more enjoyable and gratifying than before, even if he is no longer constantly catching record-breaking steelheads or salmon.

No doubt The River Why is (and will remain) one of the best books I’ve read; the novel tells the beautifully compelling story of a young man navigating through the waters of life and attempting to find his own path. Within Gus is each and every one of us, a heart struggling to listen to every string tugging at it, a mind striving to define its own thoughts, a spirit finding its place in this vast universe.


12 thoughts on “Between the Pages: The River Why (David James Duncan)

  1. Moony says:

    This was a marvellous review! Gus’ situation could possibly be a cautionary tale for any one of us: on whether we’re just attempting to base our satisfaction on the things outside of us rather than trying to search for lasting, absolute happiness. I guess it could be a reminder to stop and smell the flowers once in a while 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • aliz97 says:

      Thank you! Although I’m not particularly well- versed in the fishing culture, I did come to appreciate the art and beauty of it. And indeed, The River Why is also one of my favorite books — also, if you haven’t read it yet, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is another good read, especially if you enjoyed The River Why!


      • dutchroguecove says:

        Yes Zen and Motorcycle maintenance is a good one. Thank you for the recommendation. I thought Zen was a little more of a philosophical bent and not the story like the river why but the question they propose is about the quality of life and it is so profound.

        Liked by 1 person

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