An Angler’s Autobiography

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Simple pleasures, minor tragedies, lessons for living.

By J.I. Merritt

By Nick Lyons W’53
New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999.
187 pp., $23.00.
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ALUMNI of a certain age will remember Nick Lyons as a scrappy point guard for the championship teams of Howie Dalmar of the early 1950s. Legions of other Americans, however, know him not as a basketball player but as a fly fisherman and fishing essayist.
    My Secret Fishing Life, a collection of Lyons’ angling-related pieces, is his 16th book on fly fishing. In addition, he’s midwifed hundreds of other fishing titles as a publisher and editor, and for many years he wrote “Seasonable Angler,” a popular column in Fly Fisherman magazine. All this while also teaching English at Hunter College in New York and ghostwriting a half-dozen books on nonfishing subjects (mainly to pay the bills that went with supporting a family of six).

    Lyons writes about fishing, a pastime that Samuel Johnson is supposed to have dismissed as “a stick with a hook at one end and a fool at the other.” But Johnson didn’t fish, and it’s hard for any nonfisher to understand a compulsion that at its heart is as mysterious as sex, and about as easy to explain. Lyons describes the simple pleasures he gets from seeking trout and bluegills in streams and ponds, and striped bass in the shadows of lower Manhattan.
    At times the writing gets technical, to the point of losing the nonfishing general reader, but he makes no apologies, claiming, “I am a fishing writer, not a writer who fishes.” Many would disagree, for Lyons also writes about life in the context of fishing: about childhood and aging, love and loss. In the end, bagging the quarry becomes secondary to its pursuit, the excitement of which yields in turn to some deeper connection between fisher and fish. In one vignette, Lyons describes a man’s obsession with a huge brown trout he observes year after year but never catches; the angler, who grows old watching it, takes pleasure enough from knowing that the great fish, a touchstone to his soul, is always there.
    As a genre the fishing essay is a half-millennium old, dating from 1496 with the publication of The Treatise of Fishing With an Angle, reputedly written by an English nun named Juliana Berners. The genre’s master was Izaak Walton, a London ironmonger whose Compleat Angler: The Contemplative Man’s Recreation (1653) describes a self-contained world of “good-natured plain” fishermen for whom catching fish is something of an afterthought to the country pleasures of streamside rambles and singing milkmaids.
    Reading Walton, one would never glean that he lived through one of the most tempestuous periods in English history. In their mutual love of nature there’s a hint of Walton in Lyons, but the latter’s vision is bleaker, and the real world with its messiness and contradiction too frequently intrudes. It’s also hard to imagine two writers of more different temperaments. Lyons the would-be Walton, at peace with the world and himself and moving to nature’s rhythm rather than the clock’s, struggles mightily, and usually unsuccessfully, with the demon of his obsessive, workaholic personality.
   During one especially hectic spring he drops some pressing task and with high expectations dashes upcountry for some fishing. But the afternoon swiftly unravels: he tangles his line, loses his flies, breaks his rod, falls in the water, dislocates a hip. The writer plays the episode for laughs, but his tale has the arc of a minor tragedy. Another time, he gets stuck in a fishing camp “where every other joke” is “racist, anti-Semitic, at the expense of women or children or modern art,” and philandering is toasted as the “supreme adult activity.” He writes about a pond that he and a close friend fished together for years on sweet summer evenings, communicating in “that happy familiar pattern that only the oldest and best friends have.” Then the fishing and the friendship end abruptly when the property is sold and the two men have a bitter falling out and never speak again.
    An autobiography of sorts emerges from between the lines. Lyons’ lonely, fatherless childhood was redeemed by fishing during summers at his grandfather’s Catskill hotel. Later, as an adolescent in Brooklyn—a place “as far removed from the outdoors as Outer Mongolia”—he and his buddies Mort and Bernie eschewed stickball for dangling lines from piers in Sheepshead Bay. Fishing writers like Ray Bergman and Roderick Haig-Brown (“as much my heroes as DiMaggio and Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese”) introduced him to angling’s literary heritage.
    After Penn (where he majored in business), the Army, Bard College (where he picked up a second bachelor’s degree, this time in English) and graduate school at the University of Michigan, Lyons settled into a frenetic life of teaching, writing and editing. The flat-out pace came close to killing him.
    Not surprisingly for a book written by an English professor, literary references—to Thoreau, Yeats, Kafka, Browning, Hemingway—abound. At one low point the author compares himself to the self-deluded Gabriel Conroy of Joyce’s Dubliners short story “The Dead.” After Lyons confronted his own near-death in the form of a blown-out gall bladder, he at last got control of his manic self. It’s a mellower man who speaks in the penultimate essay—a long, introspective look at love, life, and art as embodied in his relationship with Mari, his wife of 40-plus years, whose pen-and-ink drawings illustrate My Secret Fishing Life. (With a largess only a serious fly fisherman can appreciate, he forgives her for calling his fly rods “poles.”) Lyons says this might be his last book on fishing. Pity if that’s so, for few write better about it. If the examined life is indeed worth living, Lyons’ has been a full one.

Jim Merritt, a former editor of the Princeton Alumni Weekly, writes frequently about fishing.

A selection of recent books by alumni and faculty, or otherwise of interest to the University community. Descriptions are compiled from information supplied by the authors and publishers.

By Sam Schrager Gr’83.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999. 264 pp., $29.95.
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How do lawyers sway jurors in the heat of a trial? Why do the best trial lawyers seem uncannily able to get the verdict they want? In addressing these questions, folklorist Sam Schrager endorses the popular belief that lawyers are actors who manipulate the truth. He makes the case that attorneys have no choice but to treat the jury trial as an artful performance: as storytelling combat in which victory most often goes to the lawyer with superior control of craft. Schrager focuses on the performance styles of some of the nation’s most artful criminal and civil advocates, including Roy Barrera, Penny Cooper, Roger King and Cecil B. Moore. The author teaches cultural and community studies at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and was curator of the American trial lawyers program at the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife.

CO-LEADERS: The Power of Great Partnerships
By David Heenan Gr’72 and Warren Bennis.
New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1999.
312 pp., $24.95.
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Today’s heads of big companies may be as recognizable to the public as the most popular entertainers or sports stars, but the heart and soul of every organization are those leaders in positions below the CEO, argue Heenan and Bennis. The real work is done by teams of leaders who forge great partnerships to increase the organization’s success. Using the stories of a dozen “great partners,” such as Microsoft’s Steve Baller and Chrysler’s Bob Lutz, Heenan and Bennis show how organizations and individuals can benefit from a more inclusive, less celebrity-oriented definition of leadership. Heenan is trustee of an estate valued at over $2 billion. He was formerly a senior executive at Citicorp and Jardine Matheson, and a faculty member in the Wharton School. Bennis, who also taught at Wharton, is now Distinguished Professor of Business Administration at the University of Southern California and a consultant to multinational companies and governments around the world.

POISON WIDOWS: A True Story of Witchcraft, Arsenic, and Murder
By George Cooper W’58.
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.
287 pp., $24.95.
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This book retraces one of America’s most bizarre and deadly insurance scams in 1930s South Philadelphia. A trio of con artists preyed on destitute immigrants, forcing them to take out huge life-insurance policies on their husbands. Before the ink had begun to dry on the policies, the unsuspecting spouses were being taken on “fishing trips” from which they never returned or being poisoned by cocktails of arsenic and antimony. Eventually the scheme was uncovered and the “poison widows”–some willing accomplices and some foolish dupes–were prosecuted in a dramatic court battle. Cooper uses court transcripts, press reports and interviews with participants who are still alive today to produce a stranger-than-fiction account. A former civil-rights lawyer and Columbia University law professor, Cooper previously wrote Lost Love, about a sensational murder in old Manhattan. He is married to the novelist Judy Blume.

THE BANALITY OF GOOD AND EVIL: Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition
By David R. Blumenthal C’60.
Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1999. 320 pp., $65.00 (cloth); $23.95 (paper).
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People who helped exterminate Jews during the Holocaust often claimed that they only did what was expected of them. Intrigued by hearing the same response from individuals who rescued Jews, Blumenthal, the Jay and Leslie Cohen Professor of Judaic Studies at Emory University, proposes that the notion of ordinariness used to characterize Nazi evil is equally applicable to goodness. He develops a new theory of human behavior that identifies the social and psychological factors that foster both good and evil behavior and recommends how, through a renewed attention to moral education, we might perhaps prevent future genocides.

CONTAGION AND CONFINEMENT: Controlling Tuberculosis Along the Skid Road
By Barron H. Lerner C’82.
Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998. 264 pp., $42.50.
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While completing his medical training in New York in the 1980s, Barron Lerner encountered a disease that had supposedly disappeared: tuberculosis. He became infected himself after caring for a patient with an advanced case of the disease and underwent a year of preventive antibiotic therapy. This experience sparked his interest in the history of tuberculosis and its treatment. Lerner, assistant professor of medicine and public health at Columbia University, offers an in-depth look at the history of tuberculosis control in the antibiotic era. In spite of the availability of effective drug treatment, tuberculosis has not vanished–10 million individuals are currently infected in the United States, with approximately 20,000 new cases each year. The new antibiotic drugs have highlighted the complex social problems that predispose people to tuberculosis and interfere with its treatment, and raise difficult questions about how health professionals should respond when patients–often poor, alcoholic or homeless–don’t comply with the prescribed therapy.

Composed by James Primosch G’80, Faculty.
New World Records, 1998. $15.99.
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In describing his aim for the four works heard in this recording, Primosch writes, “I seek to serve the play of gesture and memory by harnessing diverse energies. These spring from a variety of sources: the traditions of the European-American musical heritage; the expanded resources afforded by electronic media; and my own experiences as a performer, including work as an advocate for contemporary music, as a liturgical musician and as a jazz pianist. At the heart of my work is a spiritual impulse. The music is rooted in contemplation and solitude, but comes to life in the community of performers and listeners, when the air is set in motion as an act of praise to the Creator.” Primosch is an associate professor of music and co-director of Penn’s Contemporary Music program. The recording features performances by the Cavani String Quartet, pianist Aleck Karis, clarinetist Jean Kopperud and the Leonardo Trio.

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