Review by Mark Spitzer
Lyons Press / March, 2019 / 220 pp
In general, the best test of any book is if it’s a page-turner, and Fishing Through the Apocalypse is definitely that—especially in the subgenre of environmental creative nonfiction studies that concentrate on unusual fish and the human experience. An adventure-based odyssey in quest of fish ranging from obscure suckers to novelty trout, Matthew Miller’s narrative immerses us in gar wars in Texas, postmodern pay ponds for sturgeon in Idaho, and the absurdity of micro-fishing for minnows as an act of “life listing” species on the brink. The book’s main strength, however, is in illustrating fish both beautiful and bizarre which are losing ground to invasive species and loss of public land. It also offers some knee-slapping characters to love and hate along the way.
Examples of the latter include alligator gar guide Bubba Bedre, who orders clients around, demeans them with insensitive comments, and subjects them to filthy lodging conditions. Miller sets Bubba in direct contrast with primitive fish researcher Solomon David, a jester cracking excessive gar puns like “Garth Vader” and “Gar Gar Binks.” We also meet annoying, cartoonish know-it-alls, including one who dismisses the spectacular acrobatics of a bowfin gone berserk as “just a mudfish,” plus ridiculous rednecks pulling native leviathans out of trashy artificial environments while howling “This is what it’s all about!”—thereby prompting the response:
I walked away from my whooping fellow anglers, and I wondered: If this was the only fishing left, would I still do it?
And I couldn’t find an honest answer, other than this: It doesn’t have to come to that. Even in our growing, human-filled world, it doesn’t have to come to that.
Here, the apocalyptic theme appears, but not in an in-your-face way. Miller has a sublime capacity to examine this urgent moment in our sixth mass extinction and not freak out. As the glaciers melt, as the warming climate takes its toll, as beaucoup fisheries bite the dust, Miller’s message remains optimistic and balanced by a keen and connective sense of humor.
From the instant Miller kicks off his celebration of wretched, huddled-mass fishes coexisting with sportfish as respectable as Alaskan salmon and resurrected smallmouth in coal-poisoned creeks, readers will be pleased. Our stomachs churn from the vivid, visceral details of fishing in a fecal Florida swill-hole “between toxic water and deadly road” while marveling at exotic non-natives in our midst. As we tag along, wrangling eels beneath the Washington Monument and stalking snakeheads in the Potomac, Miller observes:
If brook trout—fragile, finicky brook trout—can persist in the midst of some of the most heavily farmed country on Earth, maybe we can hold onto our wildlife after all. If we can restore and reintroduce native fish in Iowa, why not elsewhere? Those speckled, feisty fish, leaping at the fly, suggest possibility—the possibility for restoring native species, not just in the wild and remote places, but anywhere streams flow.
That’s what this book does best: it provides hope. Hope that we can preserve what’s left. Hope that we can transcend our plethora of eco-problems on this planet so that “more than forty-five million people [can] go fishing in the United States in any given year.” Hope that this really isn’t “the end of the world.”
In other words, Fishing Through the Apocalypse is the equivalent of a stiff drink at the end of the day to calm your nerves at a cellular level. Whether readers of outdoors writing need an escape, a placebo, a numbing agent, or a highly entertaining narrative that effectively staves off the fact that all the natural magic we take for granted is going straight to hell, Miller provides the real thing: true, interconnecting stories of animals making life more colorful via a voice that gives it to us straight, translates the science into lay terms, and envisions a progressive future with zillions of species continuing to evolve together as they have for millennia.
Mark Spitzer is the author of 29 books, most of them about “grotesque” or “monster fish.” His latest is In Search of Monster Fish: Angling for a More Sustainable Planet from the University of Nebraska Press. He is currently an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. More info at www.sptzr.net.