The cover had everything going for it. The subtitle of Kent Cowgill’s collection of short fiction, Sunlit Riffles and Shadowed Runs, is “Stories of Fly Fishing in America.” The jacket shows a beautiful stream setting very reminiscent of southeastern Minnesota’s Bluff country where the honored professor author and I both live. Sad to say this collection of sixteen short stories are really vignettes or slices of life with fly-fishing purely as background. There not about fly fishing; they’re abut fly fishermen. And there’s the rub. I was misled by the cover hoping, perhaps, for another John Gierach. Still the stories are interesting and very well written. I’ve always maintained that books about or involving fly fishing are almost the only ones in the “huntin/fishin” genre which often rise to level of real literature. This one meets that test.
There’s the terminally ill angler who, on what he knows will be his last visit to the stream, faces his mortality sooner and more suddenly than he expected when he’s trapped by a flash flood; the college professor who blithely cancels his afternoon classes so he can sneak out on the last day of the trout season only to find his best friend’s van—and his wife’s Honda—parked at his secret spot; the young soldier on weekend leave who, parched after a long day of fishing in the summer heat, begs a drink at a ranch house and is invited in by an emotionally vulnerable woman who’s clearly thirsting for something herself; the angler on a much anticipated trip to a famous Western trout stream who finds himself caught in an episode of “river rage,” the consequences of which are uglier and more far-reaching than anyone could have foreseen.
The book though does have some lighter moments. Here’s an excerpt from the book’s first story, “Day of Mourning,” in which the fishing buddies of a deceased friend suck up to his widow in the hopes off getting their hands on his prized Payne fly rod:
“He was a fine man,” Hap offered, his voice the texture of sawdust.
“None better,” Barry added.
“He was an asshole,” the widow said.
Hap nodded awkwardly. “That too,” he mumbled, swallowing. “A man of parts.”
The evening I read Cowgill’s book that afternoon I’d crash and burned on a local bike trail falling in the process onto the mother lode of biting chiggers. Not much interested in a book that dealt with the human condition at that point I would have preferred a fly-fishing book that dealt with fly-fishing.