Foreword by Jameson Parker


A Sportsman’s Library
: 100 Essential, Engaging, Offbeat, and
Occasionally Odd Fishing and Hunting Books for the Adventurous
Reader

By Stephen J. Bodio
Foreword by Jameson Parker
(Lyons Press, 256 pages, $18.95 paper)

Stephen Bodio is Edmund Wilson with a shotgun. He might be our
most able critic of the literature of the bloodsports and the
natural world, to which he brings a polymath’s curiosity. He lives
in New Mexico, and is a hunter, a fisherman, and a falconer, and he
keeps dogs and assorted birds more as associates than as mere pets.
From 1981 to 1992 his eponymous “Bodio’s Review” appeared monthly
in Gray’s Sporting Journal, the New Yorker of the
Hook and Bullets. Maybe that column was the genesis for the fine
book at hand.

Given our squeamish, politically correct times, A
Sportsman’s Library
probably won’t enjoy a review in the
New Yorker. A reader of this one who believes that the
book is merely a compendium of carnage is mistaken. The overlapping
themes of the five score titles considered are the ethics and
morality of rituals as old as humanity. Or as José Ortega y Gasset
put it in his Meditations on Hunting (1942): “….one does
not hunt in order to kill; on the contrary, one kills in order to
have hunted.” Bodio devotes an elegant short essay to each of his
hundred titles, with an “Also Read” sidebar at the end of each that
suggests additional titles by the same author or related books. In
this cursory way another 200-odd titles are noted. I don’t doubt
he’s read them all. The book is divided into three sections:
“Fishing,” “Wingshooting,” and “General Hunting, Guns, Travel,
Mixed, and Miscellaneous.”

But first a few classics. Of Ivan Turgenev’s A Sportsman
Sketches
(1852) Bodio writes: “It is a book of country life,
and hunting is the stream that it floats in….it is one of the most
perfect pieces of writing about nature and hunting in any
language.” One of Turgenev’s legion of admirers was Ernest
Hemingway, whose own Green Hills of Africa (1935) the
author thinks anticipates In Cold Blood and other
“nonfiction novel” works of the 1960s, and despite the critical
whacking that Green Hills has taken when compared to
Hemingway’s greater work, in it “he placed every word like a brick
in a wall.”

William Faulkner’s Big Woods (1931), which contains
“The Bear” (the short novel also appearing in the later collection
Go Down Moses), is “America’s iconic hunting saga.”
Faulkner: “This time the bear didn’t strike him down. It caught the
dog in both arms, almost loverlike, and they both went down….He
drew back both hammers of the gun but he could see nothing but
moiling spotted houndbodies until the bear surged up again.” In
Out of Africa (1938), Isak Dinesen hunts cattle-poaching
lions at night: “First the circle of light struck a little
wide-eyed jackal, like a small fox; I moved it on and there was the
lion. He stood facing us straight, and he looked very light, with
all the black African night behind him.” Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings
hunts quail in an undeveloped Florida backcountry as wild as Africa
in her fine memoir Cross Creek (1942): “What makes the
sport is the magnificent country and the stirring performance of
good dogs. Good companions lifted into high adventure….”.

But Bodio’s passion is seen in his rescuing from obscurity
little known books of noteworthy literary value. The forgotten and
many times out-of-print volumes of the canon of sport penned by
aristocrats, erudite reporters, or just plain nature-drunk
eccentrics — the latter describing most fishermen, the
piscatorial-obsessed.

It seems to have started with a woman, oddly enough; one Dame
Juliana Berners, whose The Book of St. Albans appeared in
1486. Its subtitle is “The Art of Fishing with an Angle.” She is
followed by The Compleat Angler (1655) by Izaak Walton, of
whom Bodio writes: “In relation to angling, Walton stands like a
monolith, our slightly disreputable Shakespeare or King James
Bible. He must be dealt with, but there is already enough
commentary to fill a book longer than this one, and you can find it
anywhere, even in English departments.”

Among the eccentrics there is Gavin Maxwell’s Harpoon
Venture
(1952). Maxwell was an ex-British Army officer who
after World War II went off to the West Isles of Scotland to become
—what turned out to be — a failed commercial shark fisherman, and
write about it in vivid, comic detail. Bodio tells us that Maxwell
abandoned his three-year enterprise of “crazed impracticality,” and
bailed himself out by publishing in 1961 the bestselling Ring
of Bright Water
. Negley Farson was a foreign correspondent who
covered the Bolshevik Revolution and married Bram Stoker’s niece.
In 1942 he published Going Fishing: Travel and Adventure
in Two Hemispheres. Farson fished from Scotland to British
Columbia to Chile, the trout-choked Andes waters of the last
seeming to be his own discovery in 1937. Farson worked and fished,
roaming the world with “typewriter, fly rod, fedora, booze and
cigarettes.”

A modern-day classic, Norman Maclean’s novella A River Runs
Through It
(1976) has the dubious distinction of sparking a
trendy surge in fly fishing enthusiasm on western streams, and its
1992 film adaptation’s resulting real estate boom that bestowed on
Montana the annoying presence of Ted Turner and Tom Brokaw. But the
book itself is “one of those rare works that would be literature
whether it were about trout or garbage trucks….” Its opening and
closing sentences are as familiar to fly fishermen as their
counterparts in Moby Dick are to Melville scholars.

John Gierach’s Trout Bum (1986) (which along with
Maclean graces my own shelves) is the Everyman’s fishing book. Its
essays chronicle the life of a man obsessed with a sport that
happily is also his livelihood, as Trout Bum was the first
of many such collections. Gierach enjoys road trips to fish obscure
western rivers and creeks, such as the Frying Pan River in
Colorado, staying in small motels and campgrounds, and eating in
cheap diners, thus answering the question: “How come a guy who
dresses in rags and drives a smoky old pickup can afford such
snazzy tackle?”

Bodio is fond of a number of books by old friends of his, those
best described by the late Richard Brautigan as “the Montana Gang”:
Thomas McGuane, Jim Harrison, Russell Chatham, and Guy de la
Valdene.

McGuane has two books on the big list, his National Book
Award-nominated 1973 novel Ninety-Two in the Shade, and
his essay collection An Outside Chance (1990). The former
is one of the few novels to make the list. Its prose shimmers like
the sun-flashed waters of the Florida Keys: “Two spotted rays shot
out in front of the boat and coursed away on spotted rings, their
white ventrals showing in their hurry; then vanished in the glare.”
Bodio writes of An Outside Chance that it “is an
irresistible book, full of humor and excitement and precise
observation, rooted in a conservation ethic so deep that McGuane
does not have to preach about it.”

The prolific Jim Harrison’s work is represented by Just
Before Dark
(1991), a miscellaneous collection devoted to
field sports, literary matters, and food (a subject close to the
gourmand Harrison’s stomach). Included are legendary comic pieces
such as “Ice Fishing, the Moronic Sport” and “A Plaster Trout in
Worm Heaven.” Russell Chatham’s Dark Waters (1988) is
here, and like the Harrison collection, it’s full of fishing,
hunting, drinking, and gout-inducing gourmet feasting. Chatham is
primarily a painter (though his writing an excellent avocation) and
did the covers for both books. And also the cover for Guy de la
Valdene’s The Fragrance of Grass (2011), which the
compiler once praised in a letter to its author: “It is your best I
think….You get the dogs exactly, and being an aging hunter and
lover of our world and all the vanishing things.”

Which brings us to wingshooting. Jim Fergus’s A Rough
Shooting Dog: Reflections from Thick and Uncivil Sorts of
Places
(1991) seems to be Bodio’s pick for “one of the best
descriptions I have ever read of what it means to pick, train,
work, and fall in love with a bird dog.” Gun Dogs and Bird
Guns: A Charley Waterman Reader
(1986) “would be worth buying
just for five of his best essays: ‘False Points’, ‘Kelly, He Got
Them All,’ ‘Greying Hunters Hunting Greys,’ ‘Shadows on the
Prairie,’ and ‘Going Up Under the Mountain.’ These are so
deceptively simple you’d think there was nothing special about them
until you try to duplicate their clarity and humor.” Datus Proper’s
Pheasants of the Mind: A Hunter’s Search for a Mythic Bird
(1990) invites the reader to embrace the great North American game
bird, one not just the “gaudy, alien chickens” of yore, but “a bird
worthy of obsession”(and it’s about dogs too, of course). And close
to Bodio’s heart and Massachusetts roots is William Harnden
Foster’s New England Grouse Shooting (1942).

Two odd books on the list of one hundred are poetry collections.
Ted Hughes’ Collected Poems (2003) features a few
piscatorial titles such as “Night Arrival of Sea Trout” and
“Salmon-taking Times.” Hughes was an avid fisherman on British
streams, and salmon was his favorite quarry, “with the clock of
love and death in his body” (universal poetic motifs applied to
fishing). Timothy Murphy writes and farms in the “fertile Siberia”
of North Dakota. The onetime Yale student and protégé’ of Robert
Penn Warren is an upland bird hunter and “dog-man,” and author of
Hunter’s Log (2011). A hard hunt for pheasants in the snow
brings us these lines: “I floundered to a roadside willow
stand/Collapsing on a log/Where Feeney licked my hand/Unworthy man
behold thy dog.”

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