This past summer, during a trip to Southern California, my sister in law asked me if I had read A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean. I was living in Missoula, Montana when the movie with Tom Skerritt and Brad Pitt came out. It was filmed in part in the area, and a group of friends went to see it, mostly so we could pick out well known and well loved places...although a young Brad Pitt wasn't hard to look at either. But no, I had never read the book. She said it had been my brother's favorite book and that he had given out many copies of it over the years, mostly to business clients. She had been thinking about it because one of his very good friends had mentioned in an email that he had read the book, loved it and had decided to give it to a group of business contacts he knew. He had no idea that Buddy had done the exact same thing years ago. She was reading it now, wishing she had read it when he was alive so that she could talk to him about it....why did it mean so much to him, what was it that he read in the book that so impacted him that he was driven to share it with others? The next day I stopped in Barnes and bought my own copy, made a cup of coffee and sat down to see for myself the answers to my sister in law's questions.
I read it quickly, finishing it in one evening. It's a novella rather than a book, but is no less impactful for its shortness. Written in the mid 70's after Norman Maclean had retired, it is a look back at his earlier life in Montana, culminating in his brother's death by brutal hands in 1938. I wanted to read it to feel a little closer to my brother, but ended up loving it because it is just a really, really good book. It is beautifully written, almost lyrical in style and the fact that I could readily identify with so many of its settings just added to my enjoyment. It shouldn't be a surprise that I also readily identified with the author, who lost his brother at too young an age and in such a tragic and senseless way. As I turned each page and got closer to the finish, I found myself hoping it wouldn't end. Yes, it is that kind of book. A few pages into the story came my favorite line. Norman and his brother were fly fishing and Norman caught the first fish then sat down to "watch a fisherman", his younger brother. He describes how his brother struggled thru the river, then "he steadied himself and began to cast and the whole world turned to water". I find that imagery incredibly lovely.
The very last time he fishes with his brother he writes, "At that moment I knew, surely and clearly, that I was witnessing perfection. He stood before us, suspended above the earth, free from all its laws and like a work of art, and I knew, just as surely and clearly, that life is not a work of art, and that the moment could not last."
I will never know what it was that so entranced my brother, but reading this story that he loved is much like drinking one of his favorite wines, a little sad but entirely enjoyable.
"Eventually all things merge into one and a river runs through it."