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