The River Why, by David James Duncan, is one of those books that I love to re-read. I’ve read it probably ten times over the last 20 years, and it always makes me happy. Sure, I basically know the story by heart, but it does my heart good to re-read it.
So, what’s it about? Well, it’s about a lot of things. And if you asked me the last time I read it what it was about, I’d probably say something different than I’m going to say this time. That’s because the book is about a fisherman, but it’s also about environmentalism, spirituality, reincarnation, love, community, self-discovery, and family. Among other things.
The very first time I read the book, I thought it was about fishing and spirituality. This time around it’s still definitely about fishing and spirituality, but what struck me most with this reading was how it’s also about growing up and how your relationship with your family changes when you become an adult.
Here is how the hero of our story, fishing prodigy Augustus “Gus” Orviston” describes that metamorphosis:
“When people are kids their parents teach them all sorts of stuff, some of true and useful, some of it absurd hogwash (example of former: don’t crap your pants; example of latter: Columbus discovered America). This is why puberty happens. The purpose of puberty is to shoot an innocent and gullible child full of nasty glandular secretions that manifest in the mind as confusion, in the innards as horniness, upon the skin as pimples, and on the tongue as cocksure venomous disbelief in every piece of information, true or false, gleaned from one’s parents since infancy. The net result is a few years of familial hell culminating in the child’s exodus from the parental nest, sooner or later followed by a peace treaty and the emergence of the postpubescent as an autonomous, free-thinking human being who knows that Columbus only trespassed on an island inhabited by our lost and distant Indian relatives, but who also knows not to crap his pants.”
The River Why tells the story of Gus’s “exodus from the parental nest” and his adventures on his way to becoming “an autonomous, free-thinking human being.” It’s a funny, well-written, and touching story and one that I will always love re-reading.