Lee Lamothe on writing: In Search of a Fish

In my first published novel – The Last Thief – an old Russian bandit and a haunted gypsy woman fish for a fat black bass in the early autumn of the middle north; the bass creates a bond between the two mutually suspicious fisherfolks. The fish – named dyed; Russian for grandfather – is caught but freed and the bandit and gypsy ultimately return to the complicated life of their modern underworld. There’s death, there’s betrayal, there’s a kind of redemption.

In Free Form Jazz a badly scarred methamphetamine chemist sees a fish jump in a small lake near his remote “laboratory” in the northern woods; he realized this means something, something perhaps profound, although that word wouldn’t occur to him. But when he goes to buy fishing equipment he begins a spiral of events that lead to his death.

Fish. Damn the fish.

I don’t know where they come from. Except that I live in a city on a lake, I’ve been mentally landlocked all my life. I’ve traveled to some of the great port cities but never imagined teeming schools of fish boiling beneath the surface. Except for a well-made bouillabaisse I rarely even eat fish.

But they’re there. Scattered in scenes from my first novel and in every piece of fiction I’ve written since. It wasn’t as though I was a fisherman – when I wrote the scene of the Russian bandit and the beautiful gypsy woman I’d only fished a couple of times in my sober adulthood, the most recent a depressing event in Algonquin Park where the fish were big and fat and black in the thick autumn water. When my hugely successful companion shouted, “Net boy”, I wielded the net for him and absorbed his pitiful laughter and gained a regrettable nickname.

I didn’t have any Huckleberry Finn moments in my childhood or youth. My own discovery of nature came very late, in my late forties and early fifties. My wife’s family has a cottage in Muskoka and we run up there for weekends. Other family members have places they use in Algonquin Park. Your first sight of majestic moose outside a window while you’re preparing breakfast is stunning and puts your heart racing and no writer I ever read has found a descriptive word big enough. Fitting the image into a story of urban criminal free-for-all is a challenge.

It might be the silence – or the apparent silence. Nature is seldom quiet, I’ve learned. Nature is a very busy place. The sloppy bang of a lazy paddle on an invisible canoe in the dawn mists across Smoke Creek. The jumping of a fish when the water surface is carpeted thickly with bug life. Insect noises. Mysterious cracklings in the bush. The haiku lap of water at a dock footing or a rocky shoreline.

Early in the mornings I invariably take my mug of coffee to the edge of the water. Sometimes I stand for a while watching absolutely nothing; mostly I bait a line and put it out. Barefoot I sit on my tackle box, sometimes in my pajamas under a jacket and wearing a comical and conical Vietnamese peasant’s hat, and watch little jitters skitter across the water’s surface.

This is the true writing time. Not the time of actual tap-tap-tap mechanical writing. That comes later and except for note taking back at the cottage – maybe – it is instead the time of mental drifting with my characters and stories. There’s a Zen aspect to it I suppose but I try to stay away from overly examined beatnik hipster life; and even if I didn’t I’d resist imposing it on anyone.

Suffice to say: it’s quiet and nobody around and you don’t have to be a bald monk in a saffron robe to appreciate it.

Eventually a yawning nephew or niece wanders sleepily down to the dock.

“What are you doing?”

“Fishing.”

“You catch anything?”

“Not yet. Had a nibble.”

The kid looks around the lake as though expecting something to happen then looks at me. I’m sure he or she has one thought in mind: my uncle’s a nerd.

I think on some level I use fishing – and nature – as a redemption for the worst of my characters. My scar-faced criminal chemist – a depraved killer and kidnapper – only becomes less than cardboard to me when he recognizes the possibilities of the natural world, when he sees a fish jump in a little glass lake.

“Anyway, I got bored and I went up to the farm and just hid out,” my character, the Harv, says to his dope dealing partner, Cornelius Cook. “You know there’s a lake up there, way in on our property? Not a big thing, but I came across it out walking. Saw a fish jump in the air. There was a bear on the other side.”

“Yeah? Yeah, really? Fish? No shit. A bear. But, no mischief-making up there, Harv? You didn’t pull out the recipe book, start baking little pink cakes in the barn?”

“Naw. No, Cookie. There’s nothing up there to cook with. I decided: Fuck it, take it easy. Just me and the fishes and the beasts.”

This made me a little maudlin so I turned the conversation immediately to the mechanics of a kidnapping, which without volition became a key event in the tale.

There are life’s lessons to fishing and they’re probably the same lessons you can pick up any place at any time unless you’re dead to a fragrant degree. I’m sure people have been bolted by jazzy satori while fishing but probably golfers and runners and swimmers have had the same experience; so have people who have sharply been hit on the head by a windfall chestnut.

My six-year-old nephew Ross and I were in Algonquin a couple of years ago. We’d worked lures along the shoreline of Potter’s Creek and caught nothing. Back on the dock, resting up, he cast a worm and it was immediately taken. His rod bowed impressively. He yelled for help and he worked and reeled. Having nothing on my line, I jumped into inaction:

“You’re on your own, kid,” I told the little guy and put my hands into my pockets. I watched as he brought it in; it took him a very long time and I have to admit I admired his sweat. His mother netted the bass. She gave me the same look a woman gave me at the supermarket recently when I took fifteen items into the eight-or-less line.

It was his first fish of significance and it was, as we say, a keeper. It was beautiful in the pure utilitarian way of a fish, about two-and-a-half pounds and it had that healthy ink sheen of early autumn.

“Well,” I said, “what are you going to do?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well,” I said, thinking uncles with wisdom say the pontifical Well an awful lot, “well, you want to let it go or kill it and eat it?”

He’s a gentle kid. He suffered a bit of angst. “What should I do?”

“Well,” I said looking at the far horizon across the lake, thinking wise uncles do a lot of staring away and pondering, “well, you can keep it or let it go. There’s no wrong decision unless you kill it and don’t eat it. At that point you officially and forever become a dork.”

He’s a gentle kid but not a dork. With much thought his face became serious. He said: “Let’s eat it.”

He studied my brother-in-law’s particularly bloody technique for killing, scaling and gutting; he watched it being cooked. He didn’t flinch. He ate a very small mouthful, which was absolutely okay with me. I gorged.

Afterward I sat alone with my rod and reel on the sinking dock and watched bright canoes pass silently across the black water, heading for late portage. I thought: what would happen if a criminal, the worst of criminals, the very yeoman of criminals, was sitting here instead of me at the end of a day? What if my killer or kidnapper or trafficker or smuggler took a break from the day-to-day slugfest of crime and found himself in this place at this time, witnessing a young boy passing through a ritual, making a decision that said an awful lot about who he was and who he would become?

Or what if he was that young boy, just born late, elsewhere?

In my mind I’d been shaping out the vague silhouette of a minor character named Phil Harvey. Badly burned in a meth lab explosion, the Harv was a master criminal, kidnapper, trafficker, killer, extortionist. An all-around guy.

In the early writing of Free Form Jazz, the Harv lived in his role was fairly tiny, consisting of cooking methamphetamine and Ecstasy and shooting a couple of people – meat puppets who could easily be disposed of when the story needed a splash of blood.

Between the time I reflected out on the dock and later finished the book he’d morphed into one of those characters who writers come to love. The odious and precious birthing experience aside, I wanted nothing more than to take him up to Algonquin and watch him fish, to see the baddest man in the world in the most beautiful place on earth. This was an intersection I could work as efficiently as I could angle the place where a river feeds a lake.

 

 

Banner artwork © Gabrielle de Montmollin (www.artishell.com). All other content © 2015 Lee Lamothe. All rights reserved.