“I am the Dog now. I am a trout hound. I fish, I drive, I fish, I drive, I fish. I follow my nose. Not to wax poetic about it, but I dig holes. I scratch myself. I howl at the moon, and I know where I will go to die. I am also, for the record, a pretty decent fly fisherman.”
Ned Oglivie (a.k.a. the Dog) may claim that he doesn’t “wax poetic” about things, but John Galligan takes care of business.
The Clinch Knot (my first Galligan, won’t be my last) is packed with nifty imagery, sure-handed prose. The poetry is sly and understated. Galligan’s style is quick and clean, pixilated dots of color and images as the story revs up and gets going.
The Dog is through-and-through a trout bum. But Galligan hardly romanticizes the Dog’s life. There is an underlying bleakness and obvious squalor here, right down to Oglivie’s favorite sipping beverage, vodka and Tang, and his favorite smokes, Swisher Sweets. The Dog’s home is a Cruise Master RV. He is both at home and a long way from it.
However, the Dog is also open to friends and friendships and in Livingston, Montana—where he yearns to fish the Yellowstone River—he befriends a young black man named D’Ontario Sneed and his new squeeze, a white girl named Jesse Ringer. They give him a lift.
“I have come to care for them. Sneed and Jesse, and this state of sentimentality, I have lost focus and momentum. I am stuck and all too close to happy. And lately, I mis-read water. I miss takes. I fish the wrong flies, too distracted or too lazy to change. My loop collapses in the thinnest of breezes and I wrap line, daily, around my own dizzy head.”
In fact, the Dog is confused by his own brief foray into happiness but, well, it doesn’t last. Jesse is found dead and D’Ontario is found unconscious nearby. It’s up to the Dog, as reluctant a sleuth as you’ll come across, to pursue his own trail and theories, avoiding and sparring with the local law enforcement as he goes.
The start of The Clinch Knot is as sharp and finely drawn as a good mystery comes, but then in walks Aretha Sneed.
At that moment, for me, The Clinch Knot clicks up to a whole other level where a mystery becomes so much more, underpinned with questions about animals, humanity, life and death—all without being pushy about it. When Aretha enters the Dog’s life, I found myself slowing way down on the page to watch these two interact. Pure joy.
Aretha is D’Ontario’s mother and the Dog meets her on his way out of the town jail; she’s just posted his bail. “In the reception area, waiting for me with unconcealed irritation, was a handsome black woman, thirty-five maybe, tallish and sturdy, dressed in tight jeans and a polo shirt that exploded pink-pink-pink off the dark brown of her skin.”
Aretha Sneed is a firefighter with a fascination with the television western Bonanza. (Turns out she’s partial to Hoss.) She has reinvented her life, too, and has been through a wringer that’s different than the Dog’s but still a wringer.
Galligan can pack as much information into dialogue as Elmore Leonard and these two both spar in a crackling, feisty manner. Their float trip presents myriad opportunities to bond and chat and analyze and Galligan milks them all beautifully.
The Clinch Knot involves white supremacists and there’s a terrific environmental story at the heart of the plot that goes right to the issues of Big Wealth in the New West: fences, open ranges, water rights. A full array of quirky locals add flair to the scenery.
But at the emotional heart of this story is the teamwork of the Dog and Aretha. Their bonds reminded me of Galligan’s description of a granny knot, held together “as some knots will, by sheer luck, and by copious looping and winding and threading and cinching.”
The Clinch Knot requires the Dog to know fly fishing knots (duh) but the key to untangling the mystery is the Dog’s ability to make utterly human connections—and trust his instincts. The Clinch Knot ties things up (sorry, couldn’t help myself) beautifully. The last few paragraphs are utterly human, touching gems of prose and power.