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Fishing For A Useful Life

4 minute read
Richard Schickel




THE BOTTOM LINE: Norman Maclean’s evocative novella of amazing grace is captured with understated artistry.

“I AM HAUNTED BY WATERS,” Norman Maclean wrote at the end of A River Runs Through It, his memoir-novella about growing up in Montana in the early years of this century. The phrase is both appropriate and curious: appropriate because his little story (104 pages) is mostly about standing in mountain streams with his brother Paul, fly-fishing for trout; curious because Maclean’s prose is dry and laconic, nothing watery about it. It does not rush or eddy or — heaven forfend — gurgle. It runs steady and clear, and beneath its surface you sense the darting shadows of powerful emotions — big fish, as it were, which the writer shrewdly plays but never deigns to reel all the way in. The art for this old man, a college professor who did not begin to write until he retired from teaching, was all in the writerly casting of his lines, not in the melodrama of the catch.

It is hard to think of any recent book that is a less likely candidate for screen adaptation. As it turns out, it is hard to remember a serious work that has been more faithfully or more entrancingly turned into a movie. Partly this is because the screenwriter, Richard Friedenberg, has gently expanded the original work, using family history gathered from the writer (who died in 1990) and his children. He has added some colorful boyhood anecdotes and, most important, has developed the boys’ relationship with their father, a Presbyterian minister (Tom Skerritt), as well as Norman Maclean’s courtship of his wife, Jessie (Emily Lloyd), more fully than they are in the book. Partly it is because director Robert Redford has rigorously maintained the understated tone of a book that never plea-bargains, never asks outright for sympathy or understanding, yet ultimately, powerfully, elicits both.

River is a film more of images than of confrontational dramatic scenes. It is held together by a narration drawn from the book and related (by Redford) over sequences of an Edenic Montana 70 years ago. Norman (Craig Sheffer) is the dutiful son, a young man soberly grappling throughout the film with the question of how to find and lead a useful life. Paul (Brad Pitt) is the classic younger brother and minister’s son, a charming sower of wild oats. He works casually at a raffish trade, newspaper reporting. He drinks. He gambles. He womanizes carelessly. It is only on the river that he asserts his true strength as a guileful fisherman, a man who makes a hard-won skill look easy. Here (and here alone) he is clearly a better man than his father and his brother. But since, as Maclean says in the first sentence of his book, “there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing” in his family, this is no small matter.

In a sense Paul is the family artist, and that too is a consequential thing. Maclean again: “All good things come by grace, and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy.” It is the central irony of this story that this careless, self-destructive and, as we realize early on, foredoomed figure achieves with ease that blessed state that his father and his brother, who are better people in the general, conventional way, can only envy. It is, perhaps, a further irony that grace settled upon Norman late in life, when, at last, he wrote about his brother in a book that is like a fisherman’s perfectly placed fly — light, dancing, teasing.

All those qualities are preserved in Redford’s cool, quiet, allusive and, in the best sense, poetic movie, rich in unforced metaphors and unforced, indeed often unspoken, feelings. It is a measure of this film’s integrity that Paul’s tragic and mysterious end occurs as it does in the book, and where it belongs — offstage — and that it is spoken of only briefly, dryly. We are, though, haunted by it.

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