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THE FOUNDING FISH by John McPhee Kirkus Star


by John McPhee

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-374-10444-1
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

A blue-chip tour of the American shad from McPhee (Annals of the Former World, 1998, etc.), maestro of the extended essay, if not the fly rod.

Suitably, and lucky for readers, there isn’t a dry patch in this story of a fish and its homewaters. It’s owlish, reflective, full of sustaining information you had no idea you wanted to know, but also warm and full of McPhee, a shad fisherman, with rod and dart and fly, of long standing. Still, he likes to have his companions along for the exploration (fish biologists and behaviorists, commercial fishermen, fishing friends and acquaintances who were born with the touch, shad and river historians), for they feed him all the colloidal material that glues the story—episodes of McPhee’s encounters with the fish—together. Readers tending toward hard science will be pleased with the clear-minded ichthyological material, while those whose slant is more in the direction of humanities will graze enjoyably on the historical and anecdotal parts. In one approach, we get to climb right into the fish’s skin, and in the other we get to climb into McPhee, which is a surprise and a pleasure in a writer known more for his shadowy presence than for stepping into the spotlight. The cargo of stories here—many bright with humor; there is even a chapter devoted to losing fish—is weighty enough to have required many days on many rivers (how did he find time to write all those other books?), yet McPhee’s ability to convey the wonder of it all is unfailing and inviting: You’re allowed to discover all the information, partake in all the anecdotes, right by his side.

“I'm a shad fisherman,” says McPhee. True, but also a talented portraitist of the fish, a Gilbert Stuart of the species, and a William Hogarth, too, sticking an elbow into the ribs of his obsession.