I often go fishing for bluefish, in a boat handed down to me by my father. These same fish are the subject of John Hersey's new book Blues (Alfred A. Knopf, $16.95). He, too, fishes for them, and almost exclusively from his boat. My boat is small, a 17-footer. Hersey's, to my mind at least, must be enormous. It has to be in order to carry all the philosophical, metaphorical, zoological, culinary, literary and historical cargo with which the author has burdened it. Not to mention its two-man crew: the Fisherman and the Stranger...and the occasional flopping, snapping bluefish.
It is the Stranger's role in Blues to ask questions. The Fisherman's role is that of pedant. He has his moments, and he is not without a sense of humor, but too frequently he goes on to such an extent that the reader wonders when the bell ending the class will ring.
Each chapter of the book is a separate day of fishing. The opening one is headed "June 10" to coincide roughly with the arrival of the first blues in the waters off Martha's Vineyard. The final one, "October 28," marks the end of the fishing season, when the last remnants of the vast schools are departing from the areas that have served as sites for the Fisherman's summer lecture series.
As there is a certain repetitiveness to successful fishing, likewise each chapter of Blues follows a similar format, a very ambitious one. The Stranger queries the Fisherman about some piscatory bit of information; the Fisherman launches into his day's lecture. And, for sure, he delivers some fascinating details about ocean currents, tides, food chains, fish anatomy, shorebirds and, of course, bluefish—a fish that is disparaged by some uptown anglers as an indiscriminate marine hit man. He discusses how bluefish see and how the fish homes in on its food, and he explores the species' unfathomable cycles of abundance and scarcity. There is a particularly vivid description of an underwater film that the Fisherman has seen in which a laboratory-maintained pack of blues attacks a school of bait fish. The impact of his chilling description is even more staggering because the Fisherman also reveals that the Sandy Hook (N.J.) Marine Laboratory, where the movie was made, has burned down, and years of bluefish research was destroyed in a blaze set by a crazed park ranger.
But the Fisherman/author is also compelled to lard his lecture series with homilies and metaphysics in order to arrive at this summation in the final chapter: "I'm caught on an invisible line, and I'm being pulled toward being a fish. You instinctively jumped at the image, early, Stranger—the fisherman on the wrong end of the line."
One doesn't arrive at such a conclusion casually. It first takes a lot of marching through sticky philosophical ground. Take this dialogue from a day when the Fisherman and the Stranger are casting plugs into a school of blues feeding on the surface:
STRANGER: With the birds screaming and the water frothing and the gobbets of bait floating, it's like some special circle of hell.
FISHERMAN: Yet you 're having a heavenly time, aren't you?
STRANGER: I am. And it confirms what I've always thought—that heaven and hell occupy adjoining plots of real estate, with no fence between them.
But one gratefully discovers that each chapter also contains a complete and lucid lesson on one aspect of fishing for blues. It is excellent, unpretentious writing, done with Hersey's clear joy at passing along the knowledge he has accumulated over more than 20 summers.
In every chapter of Blues the Fisherman also alludes to some poem pertinent to the day's lecture subject, and the chapter ends with that poem. Which explains the long Permissions Acknowledgments in the back of the book, the list of authors ranging from Ogden Nash to William Shakespeare.
But wait, there's more. Yes, you get a bonus in every chapter: a recipe for bluefish. Good ones. Real ones. Recipes that fishermen can appreciate and use, not cooking school projects that require three hours, a Garland stove and two sauciers to finesse.
Hersey, the author of 20 other books, had to haul out almost every transitional devise known to writers in order to cram all these elements into the 12 chapters of Blues. He was certainly diligent in sticking to his format, but he would have had a more successful book had he lightened his burden.