The River Why by David James Duncan

Year 2 of MFA. Critical Paper #2

Until around page forty or so, I was feeling concerned that I’d picked The River Why by David James Duncan to read for this mailing. The tone eluded me at first: dry, ironic humor and overly formal vocabulary juxtaposed with utter silliness. Once I could hear the voice, I started to laugh and after page forty, I followed the story with eagerness and delight. The philosophical outlook underlying the narrative resonated with me in the same way that Tom Robbins’ work resonates with me. So, it was no surprise that Duncan made at least five or six (according to my count) direct allusions to Robbins’ work and at least once used the work erudite, a fetish word for Robbins. Okay, so I liked the book, but what did it have to offer me as a student-writer? Truth? Not a darn thing for the project I’m currently working on. I mean, perhaps I could find something if I were desperate and if it weren’t for the fact that a close look at this book has so much to offer me in revision of my other complete novel that is currently getting cold on a back burner. I’d rather write about that, and then put this paper in that same ignored pot for the time being. I do intend to heat that story up again.
You see, my novel, Fair Days, involves some quirky characters in a small town and centers around one of those characters, a twenty-four year old man named Travis who is romantic and eccentric and happily makes his living pumping gas at his parents’ gas station. The novel is meant, like The River Why, to explore some philosophical questions, but similar to the playful, light-hearted, no-bones about the fact that this is a story way that Duncan employs. At present the novel is in a third person limited point of view and though I do at times directly address the reader, the narrator in Fair Days is not a distinct persona. After reading The River Why, I think this is something I’d like to change when I turn the knob on that burner and get to work on a new draft.
Duncan writes in first person. His main character, Gus, tells his life story. His vocabulary is over-the-top, but the character claims not to care about anything other than fishing and to have not appreciated anything they tried to teach him in school, which makes the diction seem tongue-in-cheek and playful. If you’re so down-to earth, why put on airs, right? There is a style of exaggeration in the narrative that fits well with the fishing motif. He is persistent in his ironic humor and his capturing scenes that are slightly absurd or incongruous. Gus so light-heartedly takes us through this narrative that though we are not surprised with the transformation of Gus in the end, we are delighted, we are curious to see just how Gus came to be and who and what and why.
I do not know that I want to use first person in Fair Days, but I will write a couple of pages that way and see what I think. I do know that I want to create a persona for that narrator, whether or not that voice is someone directly involved in the narrative (a main character) or someone watching them (a minor character). Like in The River Why I want the voice to be the story too. I want that voice to transmit the humor, the incongruity, the philosophical thread that drives the story, and the purpose. I always wanted this, but I see now a way to get it better. That voice has got to be a character too. I have not yet achieved that kind of voice in Fair Days.
When Gus says to us, “And anyone who things I brag in stating that I understand fish-thought is obviously ignorant of the way in which fish think. Believe me, it’s nothing to brag about” (13), we already know from his diction, his sense of humor, his keen perception of his family dynamic, that he has something to communicate, that he is no fish-brain. In spite of the fact that he tells us, “In school I often amazed cohorts and teachers by displaying a degree of ignorance seldom attained by students whose minds were unscathed by amnesia or retardation” (18), we hear a wise man and keep reading, eager to know where his story is going to lead us. And when his “ideal schedule” doesn’t work out for him, “I proceeded to fish all day, every day, first light to last. All my life I’d longed for such a marathon—and I haven’t one happy memory of it. All I recall is stream after stream, fish after fish, cast after cast, and nothing in my head but the low cunning required to hoodwink my mindless quarry” (75), we aren’t surprised and we’re laughing with him, asking the ultimate story question: then what happened?
Reading The River Why inspired me to look at my own story with fresh eyes (fish-eyes?) and see that it’s the type of story that needs a good storyteller that is revealed, not concealed, to lead the reader through the story, because it is meant to be musing, clever, and whimsical.


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