The Clinch Knot set a high bar for reading enjoyment. I said I’d read more of John Galligan’s books and I’m glad I did. Review below.
If Galligan keeps this up, looks like he has a long way to go—there are plenty of fly fishing knots to keep Ned Oglivie in waders for years to come.
First, I contacted John Galligan through a mutual friend and John was kind enough to answer a few questions.
Question: I’ve only read The Clinch Knot and The Blood Knot but as much as Dog is running away from his past and drifting, he is also willing to chat and engage and dig in and ask questions when push comes to shove. And it seems to me that fly fishing is one of those sports where it’s frequently done solo but it’s also something that needs to be taught and that those who are fishing are routinely sharing information and tips. So there’s sort of a built-in tension to Dog’s character and also to his chosen form of recreation—is that a fair analysis? Dog seems to be in a constant state of tension about what he’s going to do next.
Galligan: That’s a very astute observation. Obviously, fly fishing is not a group activity. Most flyfishers crave the solitude and the privacy that goes with an act of passion, an experience that only feels right when done alone, or with, at most, a close friend or two. Fishing with strangers? Teaching people? That’s what guides are for, three hundred bucks a day. I confess I have taught very, very few people to fish in my lifetime, hardly more than my own two sons. It feels like getting married almost. I also tell only select people where I fish–and only that in exchange for where they fish. At the same time, fly fishers want company. They want interaction, information, how-to’s, recognition, good stories, and everything else that comes with being in the presence of like-minded people. They form clubs, have expos, talk your ear off. So yes, that inherent tension of “leave me alone/talk to me” is part of the Dog’s thing. It’s part of his grand mistake. He thinks he can heal alone, and he thinks fly fishing is the venue for that. It may be, but only because he keeps getting pulled back into human contact.
Question: Your style of storytelling is what I would call respectful of the reader. You expect the reader to be keeping up with events, characters and Dog’s thinking. You don’t do a whole lot of spoon-feeding. Is that a conscious choice on your part? Something you think about as you write?
Galligan: Actually, no. I don’t think it’s a conscious choice. It falls more under instinct, style. Shy-grown, I tend to be one of those more elliptical, more cryptic people who instead of being in the flow will speak from the end of my chain of thought, with the frequent result of startling or puzzling people and needing to fumble back and explain how I arrived where I did. In revision, and with the help of readers and editors, I often have to fill-in or at least shallow-out some of the jumps I make.
Question: Both ‘Clinch’ and ‘Blood’ have moments when Dog is showing someone the beauty of the river or the beauty of fishing with a fly. What is it about fly fishing that it has reached a certain level where it’s viewed as part art form and/or a near-metaphysical activity?
Galligan: Oh, no. That’s a whopper. I’m not sure I have a believable, cliche-free answer. But I know that the “metaphysical” thing is not b.s. What I think is that it has to do with the requirement of a very high level of integration on the part of the successful fly fisherman. It requires you to find a place and know that place and enter that place as part of it, or else. It is physically very difficult on many levels: coordination, timing, balance, eyesight–think Ted Williams, a great fly fisherman–and it also takes stamina and strength to walk streams and rivers for hours or days at a stretch. Everything matters: sky, sun, shade, clouds, rain, wind, moon phase, season, insect life, air temperature, water temperature, and more. It requires critical thinking, and critical re-thinking, and it tests confidence, patience, and wisdom. Even by the fisherman who can integrate all that, it can never be but partly understood and imperfectly mastered, a sequence of moments of intense connection interspersed among what I can only assume is endless seeking. Oh, yeah–and trout are beautiful. So are the places they survive. And I’m just getting started …
Question: Have you worked at marketing the ‘Knot’ series into the fly fishing community and, if so, how have you gone about that effort? What has the reaction been?
Galligan: Yes, I have had good success with the series in the fly fishing community. This is a literate crowd that reads from the deep canon of great literature around fly fishing and appreciates good writing. At the risk of offending, this is not bass fishing. It’s different. There is literary tradition that goes way back hundreds of years. There is interest in ideas, truth and beauty, and as you say, metaphysics. It’s a wonderful audience to have, and I do very well when I visit fly fishing gatherings and expos. It’s wonderful fun to interact with fishermen who read, and readers who fish, and to have the Dog at the center of the conversation. That tension you mention above infects us all, especially middle aged men who fantasize about running away from home.
Question: What’s next for Dog? The series?
Galligan: He’s unconscious and near death in Pennsylvania at the moment. He is also in close proximity to storied waters. Perhaps he’ll come around…
I’m just going to go ahead and say it—John Galligan is among the best mystery writers putting out books today. There’s a fresh twist to his writing and a strong character-based point of view.
I do believe that if you read the snippet of prose that is opening “chapter” of The Blood Knot, you will turn the page. And all the rest—even if you don’t know fly fishing (true for me) or know much about Wisconsin (also true for me) or the Amish in Wisconsin (ditto). Galligan—and Oglivie—will give you reason to care.
The title of The Blood Knot pretty much lets us know that Ned Oglivie gets all wound up in a gnarly family feud. This one involves barn paintings, meth, a clash of cultures and the kind of backwoods, small-town darkness you might find in Dickey’s Deliverance, for instance, or the dark inner jungles of Willliam Faulkner. Oglivie—a.k.a. The Dog—finds himself inexorably pulled into figuring out how barn-painter Annie Adams was murdered and what roles were being played by members of the odd Kussmaul clan. In order to solve this one, The Dog must assemble how the Kussmaul “family” fits together—or not.
But, what’s fresh about that? How many times do you read a mystery and wonder how the non-cop, non-detective main character is going to be the one to sort things out and then chase down and face down the bad guys?
Galligan makes it work. Oglivie resists as much as he moves ahead. He is in his own self-inflicted kind of purgatory, constantly questioning his role and place in the work ahead.
As is typical, he thinks in the terms only a fly fisher could love:
It was an interesting word to use with a fly fisherman. A fly fisherman floated something down the stream—an artifice, a lie, basically—and hoped for a take. A drift, it was called. A drift—a good drift—was a perfect falsehood. I could imagine, suddenly, Annie Adam’s death as the result of a team effort—brothers, nephews, and uncles—a well-coordinated, regime-sponsored hit-job in defense of Kussmaul country.”
Galligan does not hold the reader’s hand. You are asked to keep up. I found one moment where The Dog stops to sort things out, but it’s not much. There are nicknames to keep up with, too—and a nickname plays a key role in the resolution. The story barrels along, with plenty of jolts as the Dog, in his less-than-smooth style, turns murky water to clear.
All along the way a built-in tension brews in the Dog’s character—his yearning to hit the road and avoid responsibility against the human desire to help.
“It was a big world out there. And yet it was totally false, too. The word was huge and tiny at the same moment. The Dog’s trout bum world, ostensibly, was boundless and free, any middle-aged man’s darkest and most thrilling fantasy—and yet it was no more spacious, no more disencumbered, than the cluttered confines of my skull.”
Maybe The Dog is a trout bum, but in between sips of his precious vodka-Tang, he’s a helper, a teacher and he’s looking for the next hook to a deeply human connection.
No, he’s not really a trout bum. He’s the old fat trout in a dark eddy, trying to discern bait from real meat.