It’s about time. I mean, how many times do I have to go back and re-read The River Why, wishing there was another book, wishing there was another author who could capture the rain-soaked, moss-covered, sleep-deprived psychosis of life as a coastal steelheader?
Finally, Oregon’s own John Larison, the courageous author who brought us The Complete Steelheader (Stackpole Books, 2008), has delivered the goods. His new novel, Northwest of Normal, is a tight, gut-wrenching, fast-paced story about modern steelhead maniacs and those who suffer around them. Larison deftly portrays the ups and downs of life as a fishing guide, struggling with an uncertain future, tenuous and tangled relationships, and the economic and environmental demons that threaten to destroy wild fish and their natal rivers. His imaginary Ipsyniho, a small town and it’s river, is located somewhere in Western Oregon, with flavors of Cottage Grove, Siletz, Tidewater, Glide and Idleyld Park. The Oregon Country Fair, renamed “Carnival” in the book, figures prominently in the story line, as do the legendary pot growers of the upper Willamette Valley. Larison weaves a rich textile of sex, drugs, violence, betrayal, brotherhood, love and, or course those silvery sea-run rainbows that make us crazy.
I’ve been waiting for this book, and yet there was a natural reluctance to pick up and read a novel that presumes to describe my world, my life, my experiences, as Larison has done in Northwest of Normal. I was ready to hate it, but I ended up loving it. And I hope he keeps writing novels, because I want more.
I won’t give away more details of this great story, so no quick synopsis here. And be wary of other reviews and blurbs published on the internet. Most of the reviewers have either not read the book or missed the point. It’s not “humorous” or merely “quirky.” It’s tough, painful, frantic and true to life. You’ll be handing it off to your friends before you know it.
Here’s an all-too-real excerpt:
“You’d think between the two of us, we could convince a dumb hatchery clone,” Danny said while walking down the beach, his fly line kept aloft by short strokes with his single-hander. No one could cast like Danny. He leapt onto a rock, the movement of his torso and arms already gaining speed, and released the forward stroke: the rod arching into a C then snapping straight, a tight curl of line unfolding toward the distant horizon—the whole fly line, at precisely the same moment, leveled and settled to the river. Danny’s casts wrote cursive across the sky.
Andy D-looped another cast and felt the current bring the line into its swing. He looked to Danny, and the rod nearly jerked out of his hand. A fish. He raised the rod and instantly felt the telltale thump, thump, thump of a steelhead on the other end. Danny shouted, “About time!”
The line razored open the water, a thread of river climbing the monofilament. And then it was beside them, airborne, its silver body contorting wildly—a heavy bird taking flight. The fish dove under the rushing rapid, the neon line giving chase off its tail, and strained against both rod and current. When it finally tired and came near shore, Danny swiped it with the net.
He trotted up the bank, beaming at the weight in his hands. “Good fish,” he said.
Andy reached in, took the hen by its gill, and pressed it to the stones. He lifted a rock and smashed its head. The body throbbed under his grip, trying to find water and escape. He came down two more times, fast and hard, and finally the body quivered—its spinal cord cracked and its misery ended. Thank you.
He lifted the fish by its gill. A stream of blood ran down its lateral line.
“Andy,” Danny said, pointing at the tail.
There, fat and obvious even in the low light, was a healthy and natural adipose fin. The dead fish, still quivering in his hand, wasn’t a hatchery clone at all, but a native steelhead.