Paul Quarrington is a carefree fellow; he is lighthearted and he doesn't take himself very seriously. Early on in Fishing With My Old Guy, he describes himself as someone who has "managed to cobble together an unlikely career, selling lies and fancy to publishers and movie producers."
Along the way he's picked up one Leacock award (for King Leary) and one Governor General's award (for Whale Music). And he's had success in the movies, following a career as a musician. He's had, by my assessment, a charmed life.
This book records a fishing trip taken by four men in the fall of '94. They drive, they fly to an island on the Broadback River in northern Quebec, to catch a world-record speckled trout. Their leader is Gordon Deval, the 1994 All-Round Senior Canadian Casting Champion, and a former North American Casting Champion, a fishing fanatic, insurance salesman, and all-round character.
He is the Old Guy: the wise and wizened angler who is willing to teach the novice. "Fishing is an area that can, even in this decidedly unmagical day and age, still produce magi." Gordon isn't quite a magus; he's a madman who has spent a lifetime chasing after the ultimate "mountie". This trip is to be his big shot at a glory he has twice watched swim away from him. "Because whatever God is out there, Gordon seemed to be saying, had best not underestimate me."
For me, the record of the trip was a return to a kind of book I had not read since I was a boy. It is like a Boy's Annual adventure story: four men, a river, a mean wind, elusive prey. Here are the old themes I remember from my youth: men, nature, fate, heroism.
Add to that some other things I'm quite willing to read about: Coleman stoves, outboard motors, and national differences among trout. "American trouts, spotting a lab worker nearing the tanks, would rush over expecting food. Les truites hid." Canadian trouts are hardier, and live longer. A long life, of course, makes for the possibility of a record catch, and so for an adventure that could never happen in the States.
I love that quiet (very Canadian) nationalism, as I do the gentle environmentalism. "I am not learned enough to say exactly how.I am also not going to point my finger at fat-butted industrialists and accuse them of poisoning the water.[but] the fish are no longer there." Throughout, Quarrington makes these soft little jabs at Hydro-Québec and the James Bay project.
At the heart, fishing proves to be about fate. It is about the quixotic quest that demands more and accepts less. "The fishing was excellent, sir. The catching left something to be desired."
Or, "You can't always get what you want, but it's a good idea to have a Mr. Twister handy." This line is the punch to a story about Quarrington and some friends flying down to Arkansas to catch prize pickerel. They got no walleye that trip-managed some white bass instead. On a trout trip, he got his dore, his pickerel. Such is fate: there are no guarantees of prizes, and certainly not of the prizes you desire.
And maybe that is why Quarrington is so carefree. His novels are light, breezy, bawdy, silly, and funny. He has a wonderful sense of the absurd. There is a statue with a permanent erection in his book The Life of Hope. In Whale Music, Jerry Lee Lewis announces, "I am going to Hell.but the music should be righteous."
He is a witty man with a killer vocabulary. For example, on one page are these words: "gluten", "grog-puffed", and "ebullition". On the facing page is an almost poetic sentence, "What scuppered the supper was a dearth of brookies." On another page we get "taxonomic boner" and "cider-addled homesteader".
From Fishing With My Old Guy, one learns that these and other creations are by-products of his love of the lure. Fishing allows a lot of thinking time. "Myself, I favour emptiness, even if it means that the fish are few and far between." Not being an angler, I seek other things. I bear with descriptions of rods and wrist snaps; I enjoy the battle between the men and Murphy (the nicknamed wind) and between Gordon and God.
But I leave unsatisfied. "I guess," writes Quarrington near the end, "by this time in my little book, fishing has become a kind of metaphor. Granted, it has become that chiefly because no damn fish are being caught, but let's let it play out on that level for a little while." This is vintage Quarrington: self-depreciating and disappointing. He is not a good closer. He gives a great ride, but doesn't necessarily take you anywhere.
The last chapter of The Life of Hope is subtitled "Wherein Our Hero and Biographer Ties Up a Loose End". This kind of knowing wink frustrates me. It was funny when Monty Python sent in soldiers to cart the actors away, but it is almost insulting to have an author shut down a book with an anti-climactic climax. It is all too postmodern.
Which is a damned pity, because Quarrington is one of the few Canadian writers who dares to be entertaining. Fishing With My Old Guy is a good story in which nothing happens-still, there is a scene where a Coleman stove is crossed with an outboard motor.
So let me close with a knowing wink of my own, by quoting him against himself: "There's plenty of fish here. They're just a little hard to find."
Andrew Faiz is a playwright and is working on a novel.