Fly fishing has a grace and a poetry to it. To watch a line glide across the water, dive, then rise and finally land in the perfect place, that is a thing to behold. It is not about the fish. It’s the pure pleasure the fisherman takes in being one with the line gliding across the water.
A River Runs Through It is not only a great book about this thing called dry fly fishing. It is also a good movie. As sure as there was an Eden where four rivers met, there were great trout rivers, the Elkhorn and the Big Blackfoot in the western Montana of the early twentieth century. This was where Reverend Maclean instructed his two boys, Norman and Paul, in religion of the Presbyterian kind, and in the art of dry fly fishing.
Norman’s father told his sons that Adam was a fisherman casting his line into one of those four rivers of Eden. ‘Course Adam was not a fly fisherman. He was the kind of fisherman who’d be in the garden with a Hills Bro. coffee can, digging for angleworms. That was the way Adam was, and that was the reason he failed.
Like so many fathers since–and maybe before–Reverend Maclean used sport to teach his sons the values he cherished. But this is not the father’s story. It is the story of two brothers who took to fly fishing first to please their father, then to please themselves, knowing that the sport is not easily mastered. Paul, the younger, is the one who loves it more, enough to truly become an artist with it.
As it turned out, it was the one area of his life he could master. The rest of it was a mess. He was a gambler and a drinker and led a life that his family would not be proud of. Yet they could not do anything other than love him. And, for that, he would break their hearts.
What happened to Paul is much of the story–his stubbornness, his charm, his complete commitment to fly fishing–but there is no why to how he ended up the way he ended. We see the boy, Paul, refusing to eat the oatmeal before him at the breakfast table. We see the teenager Paul challenging the rapids of the river he loves. We see the adult Paul bring his Indian girl friend into one of the local dives and challenge all the bigots there to stop him. Somewhere along the way from a boyhood of fun to an adult, things turned sour for Paul. Something drove him onto a road to destruction.
Like so many outlaws we love, Paul is not just a rebel. He is a troubled man. His trouble taking him again and again to the card table until his luck ran out. But again and again he takes us to the rivers and the waters he loves to cast his line. To practice his art with a mastery that his older brother and his father recognize early on. That character that made him such a great fisherman is also the one that pulled him down. But man, what a fisherman he was.
If there is a Great American Novel, “The River Runs Through It” may very well be it. Read the book, then see the movie. They are well-worth it.