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The River Why Paperback – December 1, 1984

4.6 out of 5 stars 181 customer reviews

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Paperback, December 1, 1984
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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

David James Duncan's first novel has gained an increasingly wide audience over the years--some might even call it a following. This coming-of-age tale of Gus Orviston's search for the Pacific Northwest's elusive steelhead, a metaphor for Gus's internal quest for self-knowledge, appeals to all who cherish a good yarn and memorable characters. Uncle Zeke's colorful rendition of Gus's conception on the banks of the Deschutes River is itself worth the price of purchase.


"A veritable epic…moving, rhapsodic in its intensity." --Publishers Weekly --This text refers to the Library Binding edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 293 pages
  • Publisher: Bantam (December 1, 1984)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0553344862
  • ISBN-13: 978-0553344868
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.3 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (181 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #721,172 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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By James D. DeWitt on September 7, 2000
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
First, it's not a book about fishing. Duncan uses fishing as one kind of bait, along with wonderful humor, beautiful writing and memorable characterization, to make a much larger, much more important set of points.
Second, the plot isn't about fishing, or living in harmony with nature; it's about a young man's discovering what life really is. The Perfect Schedule - young Gus's plan for getting in the absolute maximum number of hours a day fishing - turns out to be a horrible failure. It takes a long time for Gus to realize something is wrong, including a harrowing adventure with a drowned man and some pretty serous sickness. Now it may be - ahem - that fisherpersons are more stubborn or more stupid, but Duncan has Gus discover that there are things more important than fishing, and that those things can lead to still greater things. And that all of that can make the fishing better.
Third, while Duncan and Gus poke immense amounts of fun at it, this really is a re-casting of Izaak Walton's _The Compleat Fisherman_, although Walton is nearly unreadable and Duncan writes extraordinarily well. This book is also about more or less the same thing as those "witlesses" that Ma brings to grief, although both Gus and the Witlesses would likely deny it. One of Duncan's subtle messages is there, too.
Fourth and last, like a fish taking a fly, when you read this book you will be so dazzled by the gorgeous fly of Duncan's humor, writing and characterization that you will miss the hook and line of his real message until, like Gus, the line of light has you and you feel that gentle tug in your heart.
Beautiful and subtle, hilarious and passionate, charming and amazing, this book is simply an astonishing piece of writing. It's one of my ten or so favorite books, and likely will be one of yours, too.
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Format: Paperback
I chose to read The River Why because I loved The Brothers K and hoped his first novel had been as well written and memorable. I was not disappointed. The River Why follows Gus Orviston, the recently graduated son of a famous fly-fisherman, who is a fishing prodigy and wants nothing more than to fish every waking hour of his day. In order to persue his passion he moves to an isolated riverside cabin in Oregon with his fishing pole Rodney and the hopes of fishing 14 hours a day, making flies and other fishing related activities 6 hours, and sleeping the remaining six. He assumes that following this plan will lead to "optimum happiness," but quickly realizes it isn't fulfilling. He wants to interact with other people, enjoy his surrounds apart for more than its fishing potential, and falls in love. It is an excellent coming of age/finding a personal religion story.
Besides the main story line, however, the book is excellent for several other reasons. The first is that it has a great supporting cast. Bill Bob, Gus's younger brother, in particular is one of the best child character in any novel I've read, and the rest of his family and neighbors are also developed well. They have great personalities, quirks, and are both insightful and humorous. Duncan also does a tremendous job bringing the environment to life. His descriptions bring the rivers and hills to life and allow the reader to imagine the beauty of the area. It is also a very funny book, so it flies by and is very enjoyable to read.
The River Why isn't a perfect book. Duncan's politics seeped in a little too much in a few instances, which would have been fine except Gus lives in an isolated world with problems to worry about other than the government and it just seems out of place when the Vietnam draft and war come up.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I bought this book for my husband because he likes to fish. I grew up along the banks of the Red River in Louisiana and enjoy fishing, too...so I was a bit curious about this little tome myself. Hubby and I decided to read this book aloud to each other every night before bed, taking turns with chapters. I have to tell you that I have never, ever laughed so hard in my entire life. Reading this book was a blast...a total blast! The story of how his parents met was worth the price of the book, not to mention the story of how his mother shot the dr's dog. Truth IS stranger than fiction. Mr. Duncan's family is one-of-a-kind and about as eccentric as they get in a very readable way. This book is in my 'I'd take with me if I were stranded on a desert island' collection. I highly recommend it.
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Format: Paperback
This book is beautiful, simple, funny, and deep like a dark, swirling undercut bank of a good trout stream, in which secrets lurk, and wonder is promised on the very next cast. This is only fiction because the characters themselves are the creation of the author's imagination...yet in reality they are an amalgamation of all of us, each one having a purely human experience. Fishing is a metaphore in this book, not what the book is about, though folks who do fish, especially those who study the stream and just "know" where the fish will be will find a special appreciation for this book. It is philosophy told in the context of a story, like "Ishmael" by Daniel Quinn, or Richard Bach's "Jonathan Livingston Seagull," or as has been mentioned many times, Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."
I am certain that The River Why would be read and understood 60 different ways by any 50 people who read it. For me, it was a compelling journey of a young man, trying to navigate the waters of understanding between what is true, what is not, and finding that those two extremes don't exist. Old ways of seeing the world didn't work when he was confronted with real life "stuff," like death, love, time, and the creatures with whom we share this little wet planet. Over the course of a year on one of any Coast Range rivers of western Oregon, he discovered the "middle path," a path that made sense to him, brought him peace, brought him understanding, and ultimately brought him love, reunion with his family, and a sense of his place in the universe.
This is a book for those who are drawn to nature and native wisdom as doorways to spiritual insight. It is a book I will give away as gifts to special people whom I believe it could touch as it touched me. Spend 15 minutes with it, and you, too will be "hooked!"
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