(review originally published on the TroutUnderground.com)
"I don't have any illusions of permanence... It's just that I can live with any number of things going straight to hell as long as these streams continue to hold up. If this amounts to living in a Fool's Paradise, don't waste your time trying to explain that to the fool."
- John Gierach, Fool's Paradise
With sixteen fly fishing books to his credit - all of which have been continuously in print since their release - John Gierach might just be fly fishing's most-read writer.
Twenty years has passed since the publication of Gierach's eponymous Trout Bum -- a book that remains the favorite of many Gierach fans -- and while Gierach's perspective has evolved, his style remains recognizably (and comfortably) his own.
In his newest book -- Fool's Paradise -- Gierach's facility for one-liners and wry observation from outside the mainstream remain undiminished, and he combines the two frequently:
"I'm still waiting for Americans to realize that being in constant communication is not an advantage, but a short leash. Cell phones have changed us from a nation of self-reliant pioneer types into a bunch of men standing alone in supermarkets saying `Okay, I'm in the the tampon aisle, but I don't see it.'"
Later -- at the start of one of my favorite chapters in the book ("Creeks") -- Gierach does it again with:
"While killing time in a Starbucks in Portland, Oregon, not long ago, I was idly eavesdropping on two businessmen when one -- invoking the tired cliche -- said that their problems might be solved if they could start thinking outside the box. The other, younger man replied, `Dude, there's no box.'"
Some fans might be shocked to hear that Gierach spent time in a Starbucks, or that he's softening his stance on bamboo rods to the point that he fished a graphite rod all week long on another road trip:
"So one afternoon I was happily casting a foam stonefly pattern on a graphite rod when our guide said, `You know, if this gets out, you could lose your charter membership in the Old Farts' Club.'"
Of course, revealing snapshots of your life to strangers comes at a cost; our view of Gierach is partially one of a writer who existed 20 years ago, and in the meantime, Gierach has moved along in his life, and frankly, that's part of the allure of reading his newer books.
I mean, exactly what is happening with AK, Mike Clark, Ed Engle and the rest of the gang?
I'm tempted to suggest the "theme" of Fool's Paradise revolves around the concept of change, and I could back it up with a lot of carefully selected passages, but in truth, that's the kind of thing a critic says out loud while an author scratches his head and wonders what book the guy was reading.
Still, Gierach's recent books (Fool's Paradise is his first in three years) recognize the fact he's not 30 any more, and in places, he does what you'd expect anyone approaching 60 might do; he looks back on his life.
To Gierach's credit, he does so with a sense of wonder:
"This is how time occasionally works. One minute you're a thirteen-year-old drowning worms for bluegills because muskies are among the countless things that are out of your league; the next minute you're a decently preserved fifty-eight and finally landing a muskie. Surely all kinds of things have happened in between, but at the moment, you can't remember any of them."
On a fishing trip to the Fryingpan River with Jim Babb, Gierach cops to the changes that have occurred since he became a trout bum, though he also recognizes the dangers of relying on his own memory:
"One afternoon between hatches, I even started in on how the fish used to be bigger here but lost steam after I saw Jim's skeptical glance. It does seem true, but then over the years we've drifted away from the shoulder-to-shoulder hog holes up under the dam (the most famous one is known as the `the Toilet Bowl') into lesser, but also less crowded, water downstream that we've since come to know and love. And when I go back over old photos and see that the Fryingpan fish don't seem as big as I remember, it's not entirely reasonable to assume that all the snapshots of the really big trout must have gotten lost.
"Jim listened to all this politely, understanding that the old-timer's litany we all grew up hearing becomes irresistible once you realize that the list of things that just aren't the same anymore will soon include you -- if it doesn't already."
One thing that hasn't changed is Gierach's wholly readable style. I've often said he's a deceptive writer; he folds keen observation and surprising insight into essays so readable that you arrive at the "a-ha!" moment without realizing he's been herding you that way the last four pages.
Fool's Paradise will no doubt be snapped up by Gierach's faithful.
Those looking for fly fishing instruction will be disappointed, though anyone looking for insight into the fly fishing life -- without the trappings of ego that cloud the writings of so many others -- will find this is a typically enjoyable (and re-readable) collection of essays.