I read these two novellas back-to-back, in an anthology that also featured the wonderfully named short story “Logging and Pimping and ‘Your Pal, Jim’”. A River Runs Through It is far and away Maclean’s best-known work, and deservedly so. Maclean is a master at opening up the interior lives of strong, silent men, self-reliant individualists whose communication with the ones they love (or hate) all happens beneath the level of language. A River Runs Through It is the perfection of this revelation, a powerful story about family, nature, and the fellowship of men. The prose is beautiful and studied, the work of a man with a lifetime of reading and experience behind him. The story moves along like the kind of fishing it depicts, smooth and languid, even in moments of great tension and resolution. The last paragraph is one of the greatest closers in 20th century literature.
USFS 1919 is a great read, but it lacks the emotional resonance and sense of importance in Maclean’s more famous work. The plot is compelling, but moves forward at a stilted pace, sometimes feeling drawn out and other times rushing through. The relationships here are undefined and unimportant, taking a backseat to an admittedly good story about the adventures of a young boy coming into his own identity working among men.
This is the part where I get all angsty-white-guy. I love A River Runs Through It. I’m gonna try to get my dad to read it (he worked in Montana as a lumberjack, we used to fish together, etc.) I’m gonna read it again. It isn’t my world (I grew up in Southern California playing lead guitar in metal/post-hardcore bands) but it’s a world I’m familiar with, that I’ve looked into and visited on more than one occasion. This shit resonates with me. Should I feel guilty about that? Am I robbing myself of the diversity of human experience by reading books by and about White, heterosexual North American males and their identity as such, a subject I’m already pretty familiar with out of my own biography? Or is reading Maclean and Carver (and Johns Steinbeck, Gardner and Updike, John is a white-guy name) something I can appreciate on a deeper level, as it’s something that comes out of my own experience to a degree that other work doesn’t? I’m still feeling some lingering guilt over the fact that half of the books I read last year were written by straight, White American men. I don’t have an answer here; I’m honestly trying to figure things out.
Recommendation (regarding the book, not free-floating First-world angst): definitely read A River Runs Through It, and keep going if you dig it.