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A Gentleman's Guide To Graceful Living
By Michael Dahlie
Hardbound:   284 pages.
W. W. Norton   $23.95
ISBN  978-0-393-06617-3

A Gentleman's Guide To Graceful Living I don't usually get an opportunity to review novels that dip into flyfishing. To be honest, I haven't read a novel in years, being concerned mostly with flyfishing books and flyfishing "stories." And the only "stories" I've been reading involve someone's trip to hither or non, with the sometimes fictional length of the fish caught.  The point is, the novel better be good if I'm going to put down the regular fish fare I read. Fortunately, I had no problem keeping Dahlie's novel in hand until the end.

This story is about a man's struggling with what life has thrown at him: a failed marriage, a failed business that he inherited from his father, and his fly-fishing club's lodge that he burned down to the ground. Needless to say, the other members of the fly-fishing are more than irritated with him. Facing all these problems while trying to make new friends, and figuring out how to replace the lodge as well as his cancelled membership, is the burning stuff of this novel.

Most fiction about flyfishing these days is typically found in mysteries with a flyfishing backdrop. Apparently, the mystery genre industry has determined that the catch-and-release mentality in flyfishing should only apply to the fish and not so much to the flyfishers themselves.

In Dahlie's novel, though, the reader won't be pondering a whodunit. Instead, he'll find himself immersed in a Jamesian tale of culture clashes. The reader may not learn how to present a clandestine woolly bugger, but he may learn to prioritize his recreational attitudes better: be flexible, try new things, survive the ruts in life by making the right changes, find out what makes a real friend--not just those who are being nice or acting pretentiously superior.

A good novel will fool you . . . well, at least as far as my preferences go. If the irony is working right, a good novel will mess with the reader's initial impressions of the main characters. A character's personality traits shift from those the reader admires or think the author approves of, to just the opposite. Another character who appears full of life suddenly appears full of deceit that is required to keep the public images going strong. Someone who appears decisive in most things makes too make selfish  decisions. A too strong love of life leads to affairs, broken hearts, a life full of self-centeredness and numerous failures. And a man, our novel's hero, who appears incapable of being decisive, in the end does what other's in the story can't--discover who is and who he isn't. He also does what others can't--find the right people to believe in, and take council from them.

But this is modern literature. Because it is written tightly from he perspective of the self-doubting, everyman hero, the reader is left wondering what to make of the problems he gets into, especially when he sets foot in Europe. It might even be said that if the reader is getting too comfortable with the characters, he might be missing the point. If he thinks he's figured out the differences between Europe and America, he might be missing the point. If he doesn't see the irony in the title, he might be missing the point.

Dahlie handles these complexities skillfully, and artfully presents the many details of the hero's life to portray his fears and failures that in the end push him toward his eventual successes. But more than this, he puts together a great story that keeps you turning pages all the way to the end--and that after all is what any reader wants most..

And how does this help you fish? That's a tough one. I would say that embracing your self-doubts keeps you growing in your sport. People without self doubt are at best boring, and at worse jerks. When you think about it, what is flyfishing but controlled self doubt punctuated by the occasional tug on the end of the line.

--Toney J. Sisk


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