December 6, 2008


Robert Traver: Anatomy of a Fisherman (Jason Peters, Fall 2008, University Bookman)

[W]hen John Voelker wrote as Robert Traver (“I wrote as Robert Traver so that the Marquette County voters wouldn’t think I was writing novels on company time”), there was nary a trace of the dullness and murk he abominated. You can’t get more than a paragraph into any of Traver’s books without knowing immediately that a stream of pleasing wit awaits you, that behind the words there’s a man with whom to share a stretch of water and, later, a drink and a well-wrought joke, told in the high wry manner of someone who knows that spinning yarns, like fly-fishing, is a kind of legalized deceit.

For example, eight pages into one of his very best books, Trout Madness: Being a Dissertation on the Symptoms and Pathology of this Incurable Disease by One of its Victims (1960), we read about a snow storm that interrupts opening week of the trout fishing season:

I awoke to hear the blizzard screaming insanely outside. “. . . Whee-e-e-e .” I crept downstairs in my bathrobe and drew every shade in the place, lit a roaring fire in the Franklin stove, built a foot-high highball, put on a mile-long piano concerto by Delius, and settled down with a book about hunting in Africa by a guy named, of all things, John A. Hunter. . . . Was charmed to learn that the pygmies of the Ituri forest cure eye infections by urinating in the bad eye.

Any reader with proper appetites understands that this is a writer worth knowing, even if he does live in a place that’s “nine months winter and three months bad sleighing.”

Bad sleighing notwithstanding, place mattered a great deal to Robert Traver, who lasted only three years in a Chicago law practice before returning home to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (U.P.), home of “three of nature’s noblest creations: the ruffled grouse, the white-tailed deer, and the brook trout.” His devotion to place is ubiquitous. In Trout Madness he laments the discovery of the U.P. by “canny lumber and steel barons” who “doggedly hacked and clawed away at it for generations.” But Traver also exalts in its “brooding hills and gloomy swamps and endless waterways,” its wildlife, and its people, most of whom hail from the north: “Finns, Scandinavians, French Canadians, with a generous sprinkling of the ubiquitous Irish.” Rhapsodically he declares that the U.P. “is one of the best hunting and fishing areas in the United States.”

But in typical Traver fashion the affection, like so much else that goes into his work, has also been used to set up a joke. Having worried that his writing about the U.P. might lead to a tourist invasion, he works himself into a momentary solace: “the people who might find and deflower my native heath rarely hold still long enough to read books.”

And, I may ruefully add, they seem to have developed a special resistance to reading fishing books, like books of poetry, and somewhat like mosquitoes that finally learn to thrive on D.D.T. Apparently all that these people will willingly read are billboards, speedometers, funny books, road maps, and signs proclaiming more Kozy Kabins five hundred yards ahead. They obediently race through here all summer long, sightlessly hissing along their labeled channels of concrete, bent only upon making five hundred miles a day, an achievement which somehow seems to ease the peculiar nature of their pain.

Here is a man whose enemies even an inattentive reader may divine and learn equally to despise: the rootless unsuspecting victims of “progress” bent on looking at the refulgent world through the falsifying lens of a Land camera.

To the extent he's recalled at all these days, it's probably just as the guy who wrote the book that Anatomy of a Murder -- with the great Jimmy Stewart, a smokin' hot Lee Remick, and a soundtrack by Duke Ellington -- is based on. But it's his fishing stories you should seek out. The essay referred to herein, The Fish Car, is a particular favorite.

-Anatomy of a fishing lesson (The Michigan Lawyer, 9/22/08)

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 6, 2008 8:15 AM
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