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Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis.

About halfway through Howell Raines's meandering tale of friendship, loss, midlife crisis and reawakening, fly fishing guru Dick Blalock - overweight heart patient, calorie-flaunting cook and possible CIA operative - sums things up in a single sentence. "If you're going to keep score, you might as well be on a golf course," scowls the pontificating Blalock.

What Blalock is talking about, of course, is fishing, and according to "Blalock's Way," fishing in general, and fly fishing in particular, has nothing to do with how many fish you catch; in fact, it might not have much to do with fish at all. Blalock spends the better portion of this book convincing Raines that his life-long obsession with rod and reel should be a contemplative pursuit approaching religion, not a competitive sport barnacled with fish counters, weigh-ins and the other modern flotsam associated with the sport.

Raines's book is a thought-provoking jaunt across The New York Times Editorial Page Editor's 50 years of rivers and streams, bavous and bays, a tale told by a man entering the choppy, uncertain waters of midlife with the wise but unsaintly Blalock as his fishing and spiritual guide.

"He was the sort of fellow who would use Sweet'n Low and then plan his itinerary so that it would take him by the place that had particularly good coconut cream pies," Raines writes of his rotund friend.

As the book's title suggests, Raines spends a good deal of time discussing his descent into and climb out of his own midlife crisis - that time between 40 and 50,",hen, as Raines notes, mild twinges of dread, disappointment and restlessness can overwhelm a man and cause him to buy expensive sports cars, land in Montana or gifts for women he barely knows.

Raines was in The New York Times Washington Bureau when the "black dog" began to chase him in earnest. "I assigned stories to reporters and edited what they had written, and at the end of the day, I had produced nothing that would last," he writes. "I also knew that like millions of American men my age, I was a hamster who would not be allowed to step off the wheel. Too many mortgages, bank notes and college tuitions for sums not yet imaginable depended on my diligently bartering my days for dollars."

When not engaged in that grim transaction, Raines spends most of his time either reminiscing about fishing, planning fishing trips or rising before dawn and throwing open his wallet to make those daydreams a reality.

Raines's love of the sport began with his childhood in North Alabama surrounded by the earthy men and women who would whet his lifelong appetite for angling. These early trips were his introduction into what he calls the "Redneck Way," expeditions with his colorful hillbilly kin that weren't considered successful unless they ended in large numbers of dead fish.

On his 40th birthday, Raines's wife presents him with a chronological photo album of his life as a fisherman. "As you flipped through the pages, the fish grew larger and I grew older," he writes. He adds: "I had spent countless hours at fishing of all kinds, but was truly expert at none."

With guidance from the affable Dick Blalock, Raines sets out to resolve that deficiency by becoming an expert fly fisherman - to move from the "Redneck Way" to "Blalock's Way."

Along that rocky road, Raines throws in some observations about being a son and a father, takes a few shots at any Republican whose path he crosses and offers a few more details than the average reader can digest about the intricacies of fly fishing. Raines also finds it necessary at several points in the book to throw in fish-related recipes, a technique that worked well in John Hersey's book, "Blues," but seems out of place here.

Raines is at his best in this book when writing about his relationships, especially when delving into his hereditary soup with his carefully drawn portraits of Uncle Erskine and Uncle Erskine's son, David Ralph, whom the family called Davevdraf. Daveydraf, Raines writes, was the only boy he ever knew to be expelled from Ensley High School, which was quite a feat since some of its students went from high school straight to prison. When Raines writes of his family's Alabama fishing expeditions, you can almost hear the old tin washtub filled with cracked ice and bottled Coca-Colas jangling in back of the car bloated with fishing gear as it dashes down some dusty backwoods Southern road.

Readers searching for a personal glimpse into the private life of the man who occupies one of the most powerful seats of American journalism will be disappointed by the book. At the end of one chapter, Raines writes sparingly of his divorce from his wife, Susan, whom he met, courted and married in Alabama. "The winding down of any long marriage is a complicated story and a sad one, too, if the marriage has been a good one for a very long time. I am not going to tell the entire history of that marriage, because the story does not belong to me alone." Two paragraphs later the marriage is ended, leaving the reader grasping for what went wrong. A few chapters later Raines talks about being on vacation with a "voluptuous young woman," who remains unnamed, and yes, even on this trip he is dreaming of fish.

Raines writes lovingly of his two sons, of watching them grow from clumsy youths to accomplished young men who can turn a long cast from a limber fly rod into ballet. One of the charms of this tale is Raines's ability to blend the profound with the, well, not so profound. He quotes from William Faulkner with the same ease as he remembers that his negotiation of the final stage of his midlife crisis began in a London theater while he was watching the movie "Moonstruck." In the film, Olympia Dukakis asks a bewildered Danny Aiello why men - especially married ones like her movie husband - chase other women. Maybe, Aiello observes, it's because they fear death. "Goofy male behavior is often seen as a case of a `middle-aged crazy' trying to prolong youth," Raines writes. "But another, darker way of describing that same behavior is that men act wild because they are trying to run away from death." After making that discovery, Raines admits: "I remember feeling sheepish about finding a pearl of wisdom in a movie that was being promoted as an opportunity. to regard Cher as a serious actress."

Raines's book seems like a quick read, even though it's 300-plus pages. He accomplishes this deceptive brevity by breaking his tale into 38 chapters with titles like "Fathers and Sons, Nerds, Dweebs and Wonks", "Amare o Pescare: An Essay", and "Spies, Flies and the Mystery of the Blalocks."

One of the things that Raines frequently wrestles with in the book is the reason people like himself spend a lot of time and large sums of money pursuing fish. Early in the book, he writes: "In my view, the people who fish do so because it seems like magic to them, and it is hard to find things in life that seem magical."

It's hard to find books that fall into that category as well, but when Raines is at his best in this book it's a word that comes to mind.

A lifelong bait and lure fisherman, Jim Tharpe, Nieman 1989, an occasion has flirted with fly fishing. Tharpe, who will turn 40 in February, spends his days as Managing Editor of The Montgomery Advertiser when not fishing or planning his approaching midlife crisis.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Harvard University, Nieman Foundation
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Tharpe, Jim
Publication:Nieman Reports
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1993
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