“The River Why” by David James Duncan is one of those novels that could’ve been prevented by a good editor (Flannery O’Connor’s sentiment, my paraphrase). By that I mean, there’s a good story in this book, but the author kept getting in the way of letting the story evolve and play out.
The crux of the novel is that Gus grows up in a family that both obsesses and is famous for fishing, both pole and fly. He was an only child until he was ten. That’s when his brother arrives. Until the brother arrives Gus thinks nothing of eating, drinking, breathing, and sleeping fishing. In fact he’s quite good at it. It’s not til he hits his teen years and sees that his brother has no interest whatsoever in fishing that Gus starts to question whether there’s more to life than just their regular family squabbles regarding pole vs fly fishing and the debates over what flies to use. Gus decides to strike out on his own á la Thoreau and finds a cabin on the Oregon coast (he was originally living in the Portland suburbs).
Ultimately Gus learns that humans are not meant to live as hermits fixated only on one attitude. He has a bit of a mental and emotional break down and it’s his non-fishing brother who starts him on a quest to find some balance in his life. He soon makes friends with his neighbors and stumbles upon his future wife. While he’s still very independent and somewhat introverted, he does recognize the value of having a community and people in your life.
I liked Gus. And the chapters where he has his coming-of-age experiences questioning how he’s been brought, realizing the consequences of his actions, and starting on the path to better himself were all very interesting. But let me tell you something. The first quarter of the book was as tough as a salmon trying to swim upstream against the Bonneville locks and dam. I questioned whether I should stop but because this was for a book club I decided I’d power through.
There wasn’t anything that was so terrible that I wanted to stop reading. It was just the narrator’s obnoxious attitude during this section of the book. There were so many tongue-in-cheek moments that it was like I could hear the author cackling at his own brilliance. My eyes rolled so many times I think I pulled a muscle.
I’m glad I persisted because Gus and his journey was somewhat relatable not just personally but as someone from the West Coast I understood his mindset and motivations. It was refreshing to read a character who is part of a community that’s as ideologically diverse as many small towns up and down the West Coast tend to be. I don’t know that I would read this book again, but I do think that Gus will stick with me as one of the those characters I wouldn’t mind meeting in real life.