Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

The Old Man And The River

Illustration for article titled The Old Man And The River

Here's a favorite: Pete Dexter's 1981 Esquire story on Norman Maclean:

“When I tell you how to pack a mule,” he says, “goddammit, that’s how you pack a mule.” He is talking here about his stories, but the stories are as much a part of Maclean as he is of them, and a man like this doesn’t start writing at seventy to flirt with the truth, or the language. “I got five hundred letters about the book,” he says, “a lot of them from fishermen. There’s no bastards in the world who like to argue more than fishermen, and not one of them corrected me on anything. That is my idea of a good review.

“I knew when I started that it was too late for me to be a writer, that all I could hope to do was write a few things well.” We are bouncing up Bud Moore’s road now. “I assemble pieces of ordinary speech. Every little thing counts. You take the way it comes to you first, with adjectives and adverbs, and cut out all the crap. You use an adjective, it better be a sixty-four-dollar adjective. Turn off the faucet and let them come out a drop at a time.”

It took more than two years to put together the 217 pages that make up A River Runs Through It. “At the end,” he says, “I was almost afraid to sleep, afraid I’d lose the connections as it came together.”

When the book was finished, three New York publishers turned it down as “western.” One of them wrote to point out, “These stories have trees in them.” Finally it was the University of Chicago Press that took the book, the only work of fiction it has ever published.

In 1977 A River Runs Through It was nominated by the Pulitzer Prize fiction jury, but the advisory board decided not to make the award, calling it “a lean year for fiction.”

I know just enough about the Pulitzer people to guess that what happened was that one of them noticed the trees too. The movie offers came in anyway.

“Now, there,” he says, “is a bunch that eats what they find run over on the road. One studio sent out some soft-talker first to tell me about art and the integrity of what I’d written. Then they sent me a yellow-dog contract saying they could do what they wanted with my stories, that they could publish a book about the movie—about my stories, my brother, the people I loved and love—and choose anybody they wanted to write it. I told them, ‘When we had bastards like you out West, we shot them for coyote bait.’

“So the studio people turned it over to their New York attorneys—that’s as low as it goes, New York lawyers who can’t make it in New York and go to California—and they studied the situation for a year and discovered the book was autobiographical. I’ve got a cardboard box full of letters, and it was eighteen months before anybody read the sonofabitching book.

“Another year passed, and another soft-talker showed up, saying he cared about art. I told him what had happened with the studio, but he was with an independent producer. He said it would be different, and the next thing that came in the mail was the same goddamn yellow-dog contract that to West Virginia coal miner would sign. They said they had to have artistic control. Not with my family, my stories. Nobody else is going to touch them.”

I ask if he ever thinks about what he might have written if he’d started earlier. He shakes his head. “I try to live without regrets. Besides, I think there are probably patterns and designs to our lives. Mostly, of course, it’s fuck-ups, but there are designs too….”