Very few books have inspired me to start writing my own immediately after turning the last page. Among them are To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard, Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. On a Southwest flight to Burbank this November, I had to add True Love and the Wooly Bugger by Dave Ames. Flipping through the last chapter with peanut-stained fingers, I was filled with the kind of lightness that makes you smile to yourself--like suddenly you're in on the secret and plan to do something great with the borrowed wisdom.
My greatness only amounted to seven scribbled pages that day, but the afterglow from Ames' wonderful memoir hasn't faded. When I first saw the cover of True Love, the blue bikini top, fly reel and bull-rushes intrigued me, but they also suggested a potboiler full of big fish stories and creek-side conquests. While Ames' nicely laced collection of autobiographical vignettes somewhat fulfills this expectation, his straightforward, graceful style ties the elements together like a Royal Wulff riding a tight current over a honey hole during a dusky hatch. Even an amateur like me can tell you, it doesn't get much sweeter than that.
The book begins like many good stories, with a series of teases and juicy tidbits that paint a picture of a young, vigorous character with a lifetime of stories under his belt. Ames' protagonist is a fisherman from the tender age of 10, not a natural, but someone passionately in love with the way of the river. He and a tight-knit group of buddies wander the planetary waters from Montana's Flathead River to the massive reef systems of the Caribbean. The topics are as colorful as the settings, and Ames approaches first crushes, lost trophies, destitution, marital bliss and brokenness with the same measured emotion and adage-like reflection. At times he is a bit too removed from painful experiences, but the method is deliberate--a dodge not unlike those used by Ames' chosen prey to force the focus in a certain direction. He doesn't avoid the hard stuff as much as put it in perspective for an audience all too accustomed to weepy, narcissistic narrative.
Unlike many of the fishermen I know, Ames seems not to have one perfect fish, woman or insight. Each memory is brought to life with equal energy, and his character shifts easily from Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea to an immature womanizer to a hopeful father taking his sons fishing for the first time. His honesty is moving without being intrusive, and his voice is that of a true sportsman.
True sportsmen, I have learned, are made of tougher stuff than most. They crave the challenges of nature and will spend all day dropping dry flies in front of disinterested cutthroat while some yokel in spandex booties reels in fish after fish on a cheap spinner. They will drive 1,000 extra miles through the thickest forests to find unspoiled banks to stand on, because they are in it for the experience, not the tally. Men like this only brag when they've had a few too many snorts of Bourbon, and even then, their favorite victories have much less to do with inches than the intricacies of a good rouse and a worthy adversary. They also tend to be followers of the catch and release philosophy, echoing Norman McClean's sentiment in his novel A River Runs Through It--that any man who can't fish with skill and respect shouldn't be allowed to dishonor the fish by catching him.
Ames, though self-deprecating and humble, is of this vintage. Having guided his way through Montana and spent most of his life trying not to have a real job, he is the kind of guy "real" fishermen would welcome to test their sacred spots. His writing is direct and resonant, but the real magic of True Love is the way it makes a fable of life that speaks to all people, whether they know the difference between a rod and a pole.