Trash Fish is the story of a boy who gives himself over to his obsession with fish as an escape from the trials of growing up. Time and again, as his life unfolds to reveal his failings and foibles to those around him, he returns to the fish, which cast him a lifeline of their own. Laugh-out-loud funny yet sardonically raw to the bone, Keeler tells a whole whirlpool of a story—the women, the Peace Corps, the teaching jobs, the marriage and children, and, of course, the rod and reel. Eventually, however, his serene fishing life becomes contaminated with real-world influences: a polite society of angling purists insists that he choose between flies and bait, while his alter ego (and nemesis) begins to use fishing as an excuse to cheat on his wife. Ultimately, Keeler’s fisherman must acknowledge that he can’t escape down the river bend, and that in order to experience true love, he must accept the complexities within himself and within the people on land around him.
When I was a toddler, Father tied me to the seat of our rented rowboat. That was around 1950 on Long Lake in Minnesota. I know there are probably at least as many Long Lakes in Minnesota as there are Trail Creeks in the West, but this one was just a morning’s drive from the Twin Cities where he was working on a Ph.D. in American Studies. He tied me to the seat because the first time he took me out I scared the shit out of him, which might seem fairly unlikely since he was a 200 pound plus Hemingway scholar and I was a fifty pound ball of ADHD. Anyway, here’s how it went:
“Hey, Fargle, your bobber just went under.”
“Gottabite! Gottabite! Gottabite.”
“Take it easy. You don’t have to stand up.”
“Gottabite! Gottabite! Gottabite.”
“Stay in the bow, son. You don’t want to....”
“Gottafish! Gottafish! Gottafish!”
“Yes, that’s a nice sunfish, but you’re going to….”
“Get back in the God damned bow!”
“Bawwwww, got away. Bawwhoohoo!”
So we baled out the boat, and for rest of the weekend Father rowed this tether-ball around to the coves and inlets of Long Lake, and bouncing in the limits of my clothesline rope, I caught a dozen or so fat sunfish.
In the ensuing years, I sometimes found it difficult to understand why Father chose to go fishing by himself half the time. After all, he liked to fish, I liked to fish and I was his son. But now, looking back, it’s not quite such a mystery. Fishing with me must have been something like bird watching with a cat. As soon as we’d pull up to a stream or lake, I’d be out of the car, dashing toward the lake, falling over boulders, spilling the tackle box and falling in the water. Father would stand by the car trunk muttering under his breath, knowing that nothing short of violence could stop me; then eventually, he’d come after me, picking up hooks and sinkers in my wake and finally rigging up his own rod.
Not that he was any great shakes himself. His equipment was always frayed and clogged from use and abuse. His casting reel sometimes looked like a porcupine with all the loose ends poking out from where he’d knotted the line together after cutting out backlashes; his rod was short and stubby from multiple tip breakings and regluings and his lures—they were huge old concoctions of metal, feathers and wood, resembling small rats or squashed pigeons. But probably, if I learned anything specific from my father about the process of angling, it was how to swear. After all, when one lets one’s tackle become a huge tangled wad, one has a bit of trouble turning it into anything but found art. One of my earlier vivid memories is of Father standing out on a point of rocks on Lake Skaneateles in upstate New York, silhouetted against a fuchsia sunset, jumping up and down screaming fuck, fuck, fuck. I can’t remember if it was over faulty equipment, a lost fish, or life in general. All I remember is the fuck part.
When a reel got a backlash in it, in Father’s hands it ceased being a plain old reel and became a “jacked-off spool of horse fuck” reel. Once in Oklahoma when he was pulling a stringer of small bass from a farm pond and a water moccasin had managed to work one of the bass into its gullet, it ceased being a water moccasin and became the “bastard son of an elongated turd.” And once when he was cleaning a channel cat and his hand slipped so that its dorsal spine went into his wrist, it ceased being a channel cat and became a “scum sucking, mucous drenched nail in the hand of Jesus Christ Almighty.”
There was also violence. If he broke the tip of a rod, sometimes, instead of replacing the tip, he would take what was left and break it again in several places. It isn’t easy to break a fishing rod in several places. Sometimes one must find a couple of cinder blocks so that one may lay it between them and stomp it. Or sometimes one must just rear back send it whoop-whooping out to the middle of the river. For the most part, Father was a gentle man, but fishing was, for him, a sort of ventilation shaft through which raged the sound and fury of his simian predecessors.
But aside from the bondage, stomping and profanity—or maybe in no small part because of it—these early memories were enough to establish an addiction, so much so that the imagery became part of my earliest dreams. In the subliminal zone, the sunfish on Long Lake became, on the one hand, a sort of bright currency, coins and jewels flashing their turquoise, orange, red and green up through the Freudian murk of my early childhood. And as I’ve grown older, they’ve left the water and I’ll go on surreal fishing trips, tossing my baits and gaudy lures behind the furniture of my bedroom or under the trees and hedges of our back yard, and catch huge fantastic creatures that swim the air until I pull them close enough to be terrified and wake up. I suppose the lawn and bedroom fishing was as much a product of my waking experiences as of my unconscious. Sometimes after hard rains on my grandfather’s farm in Oklahoma, he and I would walk the grassy pasture behind his house and find catfish trying to swim the wet grass between ponds. Once he picked up a three-pound channel cat wriggling behind a prickly pear cactus. We had it for dinner that day. To me it tasted more like rabbit than fish.
Sometimes the dream fishing turned nightmare and still follows me in my adulthood where I catch fish that rot as soon as I pull them from the water, or I’ll be surf casting and giant ocean fish that I witnessed on the early T.V. series, Crunch and Des, or the movie, The Old Man and the Sea, will take my bait and drag me screaming, as if on water skis, out to the deep water, as afraid to hold on as I am to let go. And still, as a dream-toddler, I’ll walk out the front door of the Quonset hut where my family lived in Minneapolis while my father went to graduate school and hear an eerie gargling, wailing noise. When I look down in the puddle before me, it’s a small fish with my mother’s head pleading with me. I never have any idea of what she’s saying. I only know that I’m responsible.
But don’t take this too seriously. I sure don’t. No sir, I’m one healthy, well-adjusted guy. We all leave our miniaturized mothers gargling and screaming in puddles at one time or another.