'The Sky Fisherman': noble impulse, but ...


"The Sky Fisherman," by Craig Lesley. New York: Houghton Mifflin Company. 304 pages. $22.95 Sweetness isn't one of the usual ingredients of modern fiction, if only because it has become unfashionable, or, worse, it can't be appreciated by what is called (sadly enough) the modern sensibility. The genuine article is an informed innocence that exists in spite of a lot of evidence of the human condition doing its worst.

It is this sweetness that one brings away from Craig Lesley's "The Sky Fisherman." I am convinced, in a way I am about few modern matters, that the author of this book is a decent, moral man who believes in a number of things that I believe in, too. Fishing is at the heart of "The Sky Fisherman," and as someone who spends more time "behind a fly rod," as they say, then I should admit publicly, I'd like to say that the author of this book is just the kind of companion you'd want to have on a good stretch of trout water.

The difficulty here is that the author of "The Sky Fisherman" seems to be in search of a story and characters to which he can attach his obvious decency. Ostensibly, this is a story of coming of age in which a young man tries to come to terms with the death, by drowning, of his father, just as he tries to live with his attractive and somewhat stilted mother, and with the natural world in which he finds himself. Essentially, though, the book plods along, with nothing driving it aside from the author's constant good intentions. In fact, I often had the feeling that Mr. Lesley was impatient with his material, which seems to require something more than his continual good will.

The book invites comparison with "Huckleberry Finn," not only by its voice, but in the story of a young man coming to terms with his missing and problematic father. But when one considers the original, a reader finds that Huck's sweetness comes not from a simple impulse toward decency, but from humility and wisdom that is formed in the heart of some very bad moments: there are no scenes in "The Sky Fisherman" like the one in which Huck loads a gun and points it at Pap, while the old man is having the D.T.s.

"The Sky Fisherman" also invites a comparison with Twain's send-up of James Fenimore Cooper. For instance, there is a scene in "The Sky Fisherman" in which its narrator, Culver, and his Uncle Jake are out on the river, which is in flood. They are in a boat with an outboard engine. They are also going downstream. A couple of enormous trees are in the water, floating downstream, too, but even though Culver and his uncle are under power, Culver thinks, "I didn't think we could outrun the trees too long." Well, as someone who spends a lot of time on the Connecticut River, this does not sound like a likely scenario: mostly, things in the current of a river float at about the same rate, and any boat under power isn't usually threatened by something that is merely floating.

This episode, however, seems emblematic of the difficulties with this book: too much is unnecessarily made out of something that appears manufactured, or hatched up, to allow a sweet sensibility to make itself apparent.

However, let no one be misled: the impulse to write this book is noble, just as it is obvious the author sets high moral standards for himself and then tries to live up to them. It is this seriousness of moral purpose that is so often lacking in contemporary fiction, and I, for one, want to congratulate Mr. Lesley on having the courage, and the character, too, to make the effort here.

* Craig Nova's ninth novel will be published next year. Among his others have been "The Good Son," "Tornado Alley," and "Trombone." He is a contributing editor for Men's Journal and has written extensively about fly fishing.

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