David James Duncan: River bard

By Douglas Hare EBS Staff

David James Duncan is best known as the author of “The River Why,” a novel about fly fishing, romance and the rivers of Oregon and Montana, and “The Brothers K,” a Dostoyevskian tale about family, baseball and religion.

He is less well known for his essay collections “My Story as Told by Water” and “God Laughs & Plays,” his most recent book about politics and Christianity, published in 2006.

Duncan is passionate about running waters and despite being raised as a Seventh Day Adventist, his own religiosity resembles the Nez Perce tribe’s reverence for the coho salmon as a sacred animal. “A salmon river is a prayer wheel,” the author once said.

But with equal adeptness the author can channel the humility of St. Francis of Assisi, the tranquility of a Zen Buddhist monk, or the anger of an Old Testament prophet.

I was planning on reading one of the Missoula-based writer’s novels when I came across “River Teeth” on a friend’s bookshelf. In the introduction, Duncan explains how since childhood he has called the last knots of old growth trees disintegrating in fast moving waters “river teeth.”

“There is life in rivers, and strength,” Duncan writes, “there are countless grinders and sanders: in a relic the waters have shaped so long, why wouldn’t we begin to glimpse the river’s mind and blind artistry?”

While “River Teeth” is a collection of both fiction and nonfiction stories, it’s difficult to know where one medium begins and the other ends. I can only assume the blurring between the autobiographical and the fantastical is intentional.

Duncan blends an environmental ethic, a love of baseball, and his own brand of Eastern mysticism in tightly wrought vignettes and longer-form short stories. He somehow manages a balancing act between his activist inclinations and his own contemplative tendencies.

“The Mickey Mantle Koan” is unquestionably one of the finest pieces in the collection. At the same time, it’s a magnificent contribution to sports literature and one of the most moving eulogies I have ever read.

“On Not Rocking the Boats” is an unforgettably hilarious story about an irritable fly fisher who laments the commercialization of his craft. For anyone who has had a transcendental experience at a music concert, “My One Conversation with Collin Walcott” will hit all the right notes.

Whether Duncan is channeling Ralph Waldo Emerson or Wendell Berry, he has earned himself the reputation as an American sage and bard of the Pacific Northwest. Pick up one of his books, let the flow of his prose wash over you and you will be entertained and enlightened by the musings of a mystical wordsmith.

Doug Hare is the Distribution Coordinator for Outlaw Partners. He studied philosophy and American literature at Princeton and Harvard universities.