In Other Words The An­nual Big Arsenic Fish­ing Con­test by John Ni­chols

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - (The Mi­la­gro

In this novel by Taos au­thor John Ni­chols

Bean­field War), three men with enor­mous per­son­al­i­ties meet each fall to fly-fish on the Río Grande while drink­ing to ex­cess and “play­ing the dozens” — a form of deroga­tory con­ver­sa­tion that in­volves rip­ping apart one an­other’s char­ac­ters and lit­er­ary tal­ents — or lack thereof. There is Yuri, a pug­na­cious free­lance out­doors writer and as­pir­ing nov­el­ist from the Jewish slums of Philadel­phia; Bubba, a preter­nat­u­rally self-con­fi­dent Texas real es­tate ty­coon who pens a well-re­ceived sports novel; and an un­named first-per­son nar­ra­tor, a pro­lific au­thor and screen­writer who closely re­sem­bles Ni­chols him­self, though in an au­thor’s note pre­ced­ing the first chap­ter, Ni­chols main­tains that any re­sem­blance be­tween his char­ac­ters and real peo­ple is wholly co­in­ci­den­tal.

The novel’s main theme is male friend­ship of the com­pet­i­tive, pos­tur­ing va­ri­ety, and the story is told in a jaunty camp­fire style, ad­dressed to a lis­tener who is as­sumed to be not par­tic­u­larly in­ter­ested in the nar­ra­tor’s di­gres­sion­filled ram­ble. “So stay glued to your seats and don’t switch the chan­nel,” he alerts us, for ex­am­ple, about two-thirds of the way through the book, “this chap­ter is the pay­off of my con­vo­luted moral­ity tale.”

The nar­ra­tor is a blue-blooded di­vorced fa­ther of two who moved to New Mex­ico in 1970. To­ward the be­gin­ning of the novel, he talks at length about his fem­i­nist lean­ings and how much he loves women. He has had a hot-and-cold ro­mance for many years with Rachel, who likes sex with him but can­not live with him be­cause he is an over­bear­ing per­son with an out­sized sense of hu­mor that never lets up. He talks con­stantly in dense, high-dic­tion rants — al­ways us­ing more words than nec­es­sary. Though he is a well-pub­lished au­thor, he doesn’t have great lit­er­ary aims and he knows it, as does Yuri, who has been re­vis­ing the same novel for the bet­ter part of a decade and fan­cies him­self a mod­ern-day Proust. Yuri talks ex­actly like the nar­ra­tor but with a slightly an­grier streak. Bubba does too, but with a twangy Texas at­ti­tude. Bubba, who is mar­ried, brings a dif­fer­ent woman with him to New Mex­ico ev­ery year. Yuri brings Sharon, a feisty New York lawyer who sup­ports him fi­nan­cially. Part of the fish­ing-con­test tra­di­tion is that their dates stay home all day wait­ing for the men to re­turn from the river and then, dressed in sexy out­fits, cover the win­ner with kisses. Over the course of more than 15 years, the nar­ra­tor is al­ways vic­to­ri­ous, which is the fram­ing de­vice of the novel: Will Yuri or Bubba ever tri­umph — or die try­ing?

Ni­chols paints an ad­e­quately com­plex por­trait of the men’s friend­ship, fill­ing it with stand­ing re­sent­ments, class is­sues, and the shame that can come with aging. The men of­ten seem to loathe each other, and the nar­ra­tor fre­quently pon­ders why ev­ery­one keeps com­ing back. The tragic end­ing, though ren­dered with pathos and hu­mor, ul­ti­mately comes across as self-serv­ing for the nar­ra­tor, whose hu­man­ity wanes even as he suf­fers from in­creas­ingly se­ri­ous health prob­lems. Whether or not you en­joy The An­nual Big Arsenic Fish­ing Con­test! prob­a­bly rests on your tol­er­ance for the nar­ra­tor’s de­gree of clue­less­ness. He med­i­tates fre­quently on his flawed char­ac­ter, and has the other char­ac­ters pil­lory him for it, yet he rev­els in self-ob­ses­sion and does not change. — Jen­nifer Levin

John Ni­chols reads from “The An­nual Big Arsenic Fish­ing Con­test!” at 3 p.m. on Sat­ur­day, Sept. 24, at Col­lected Works Book­store (202 Gal­is­teo St., 505-988-4226).

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