Ever read or see A River Runs Through it?  Rare case of a wonderful book and movie both of which came to mind when I noticed that a new Norman Maclean Reader just came out.  River Runs Through It is the achingly beautiful autobiographical story of a Scottish Presbyterian minister father, two sons – one turbulent and one well grounded, and fly fishing on the Blackfoot River in Montana.  “In our family there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

  Mr. Maclean wrote that his purpose was to explore the “topography of certain exposed portions of the surface of the soul”.  It is the soul of the tumultuous one, Paul, which lacks the sheltering layers most humans are able to maintain.  The exposure causes him to fall in with the rhythms of nature both harmonious and discordant.  He is a masterful fisherman, but also drawn to gambling and drinking and fighting.   

    “A river, though, has so many things to say that it is hard to know what it says to each of us.”  Norman listens attentively.  At one the two brothers are fishing together and a big one gets away.  “Poets talk about ‘spots of time’, but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment.  No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone.  I shall remember that son of a bitch forever.”

  The ‘poet’ Maclean invoked was Wordsworth:

There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence-depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse-our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired;
A virtue, by which pleasure is enhanced,
That penetrates, enables us to mount,
When high, more high, and lifts us up when fallen.

  Paul (played by Brad Pitt in the flic) had no capacity for reflection or introspection.  The river carries him wherever it goes.  At the end, after he is found beaten to death, there is an exchange between the father and Norman.  Father: “Do you think I could have helped him?”  Son: “Do you think I could have helped him?”  “How could a question be answered that asks a lifetime of questions?”  Maclean asks the reader.  He concludes: “I am haunted by waters.”

  Paul reminded me of Meriwether Lewis who, like he, apparently reveled and managed well in the dangers and difficulties that filled the expedition he led with William Clark, but once back in civilization and society floundered.  Easy street was his most difficult traverse.  He was found dead of gunshot wounds two years later.  It’s disputed, but most thought it suicide.

  Huck Finn bore some resemblance to both Lewis and Paul Maclean, but knew himself well enough to say: “But I reckon I got to light out for the territory ahead of the rest because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it.  I been there before.”

  I can’t stand it either.  I’ve been there before too. 

Note 1: At the movie’s end, at the last light of day while we watch a now nearly ancient Maclean cast his fly towards a cliff on the far side of a rushing river, the reading of the final lines by director/narrator Robert Redford is a coda more perfect than any other I can recall:  “Eventually all things merge into one, and a river runs through it.  The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time.  On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops.  Under the rocks are the words.  And some of the words are theirs.  I am haunted by waters.” 

Note 2:  Perhaps I’m in luck.  Maclean didn’t start writing until his “biblical allotment of three score years and ten” after being prodded/encouraged by his children who had long listened to his story telling.  I remember driving a blue Ford pick up with a manual transmission talking about the Genius (aka Genii) in the bottle while one kid or another would shift when I’d push in the clutch…  And it was they who organized this space for me…

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