Spliced together in alternating, not-quite-complementary chapters are: (1) a reverent history of the striped bass from its Ice-Age origin to its precarious survival in today's polluted waters; (2) a bittersweet memoir of author Cole's seven-year attempt to support himself fishing bass off the eastern end of Long Island. Cole is 25 and society (Yale, Upper East Side, the Hamptons) when, ditching the conventional New York job, he returns to his childhood summer haunts as a toiler. There he hooks up with Jim, another young dropout even more heroically determined to make it ""authentically,"" and together they subject themselves to a course in authenticity: chopping wood and knitting nets through the winter, fitting themselves out with a dory, a truck, and commercial haul-seining gear come spring. Once, they strike it lucky and net a ""living explosion"" of 2300 pounds of bass; more often, they return home without enough fish ""to pay for the gas."" So, when Ed Posey--""one of the best of the Poseys--who were the best of the fishermen""--asks them to crew for him, they jump at the chance. The Poseys are the real thing, an ""innocent aberration. . . surrounded by the well-tended make-believe circles of the super-rich."" Cole sticks it with Posey for six years, but he can never quite shake off the white chimneys of grandmother's mansion on the horizon. Understated and ironic about himself, Cole pulls out the stops in the alternating bass chapters. True, we learn about their life cycle, breeding grounds, the smell of their semen, how they're caught, how prices on the Fulton Fish Market are set. But, as Cole waxes poetic, the prose grows purplish: ""Their histories are sagas of survival"". . . ""The sea's secrets are not susceptible to plundering by synthetics."" Luckily, these sections become skimpier as Cole runs out of steam, and the memoir, despite selfconscious ambivalence, floats the book as a whole.