A recent New Yorker cartoon shows a librarian admonishing a curious preschooler in a reading circle: “Let’s save all our questions about the story’s veracity until after it’s over.” That tension between imagination and reality, fantasy and fact, is perhaps always at the heart of fiction. It’s certainly there in local author Lamar Herrin’s recent novel, “Fishing the Jumps.” What unfolds is a veritable fish story, tall tale, shaggy dog story, rambling family history, and above all paean to the art of storytelling.
Two old friends have escaped to a cabin in the foothills of the Adirondacks for a few days’ fishing; Jim, the elder by 10 years, is the narrator. Herrin tends to leave his central male characters less defined, the careful observer of others whose own vagueness permits the reader to slip into his skin, assume his perspective.
Walter Kidman, a lawyer, is his audience, eager but exacting, constantly asking for more specific details—names, dates, verifiable facts. His “prosaic court of law” eventually elicits “primal secrets,” which get a “poetic pass.” The pragmatic lawyer and the lyrical raconteur make a charming odd couple, with Walter’s attentiveness drawing out Jim’s tale, which is wandering, hesitant, ambling down unpredictable paths, possible dead ends.
But in the hands of a master storyteller like Lamar Herrin, there are no dead ends, no wasted words. The pace of the story is leisurely, unrushed, like the men’s retreat; I found myself restless for the first 20 pages or so until I accepted the halting rhythm and its purpose. Jim’s multiple forays are to hook us, to maximize the catch. He shares memories, at first fragmentary, as they bubble up, because for him fishing will always recall the lake adventures of his youth, in the deep South, with a cousin he admired for his skill, grace, and worldly success.
The wider story that Jim revisits—casting and re-casting memory’s net, feinting, testing reality—is about this man, Little Howie Whalen, his beautiful life and homely end; about Jim’s mother and her sisters, all strong and distinct in different ways, and their fate and that of their offspring. Jim had moved north, tried to disentangle the knots of family, never fully succeeding.
Now he reluctantly dredges up pieces of the past—“a sad story and one that had worn me out.”
Jim and Walter have come to escape their lives for a long weekend, but there’s no escaping memory’s persistent tugs. So Jim finds himself facing his past, tallying losses, weighing promises made and broken, trying to find meaning in it all—when “every step of the way,” he knows, life itself is devastation.
Storytelling is a way to shut out the night, the encroaching blackness; your story mixes with the currents and goes out into the world, perhaps with an agency that you lacked. In their travels, the two men see and make frequent reference to the still-sturdy WPA constructions, cabins, bridges, that suggest our actions can have purpose, be of use, serve, last. Story is a slenderer, less stable service, but it’s what Jim can offer.
As Herrin himself so ably does, like a mesmerist reanimating this extended family, charting their warmth and griefs so richly you’ll feel you’ve visited with them. He also plays continually, lightly, with metaphor: storytelling as fishing, as sport, as card playing, as struggle.
And even as religious experience: Walter becomes the father confessor “sworn to secrecy,” who listens without judging, offers the blessing of “peace”; their impromptu trip down South to Jim’s family home is an act of faith, “the faith of a fool, of a pilgrim whose day has passed.”
Herrin’s descriptions can catch your breath: whether observing people (“other couples with two young kids to care for and egos to trim”); the man-made (cabins “small and low-built with patchy screen porches, the screens like luffing sails, no longer taut”); or the luxurious natural world that underpins and justifies everything here (“A swath of moonlight lay down the center of the lake, then scattered out on the margins to a mosaic of silvered scales.”)
Jim discovers that, risky as it is, you can go home again, slip momentarily back into boyhood wonder, “fish the jumps”—racing into the fray where the bass are wildly feeding on minnows and fiercely compete. Adventure, tall tale, and rebirth splendidly accomplished, paradise re-glimpsed, faith made whole, with just the right degree of ambiguity.
“Fishing the Jumps,” Lamar Herrin. The University Press of Kentucky, 2019, 205 pp.
Barbara Adams, a regional arts journalist, teaches writing at Ithaca College.