Saturday, April 01, 2006



This book is by John McPhee, aka John McAfrican; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2002

You’re going to get a kick out of this book when you finally read it. I’ve gotten your cards and letters explaining why you never WANT to get to it, and neither did I until I got around to it myself. THIS BOOK IS NOT WHAT WE THOUGHT IT WAS AT ALL.

The book manages to present itself simultaneously as a treatise on killing and eating American River Shad, AND as a positively worshipful and poetic ode to this globetrotting operative. Lots of writers have tried to get this effect in books devoted to individual fish species, and most have not managed very well. This author actually manages; in fact it was rather hard to put down. Part of what kept me turning the pages was the question of whether he would finally come down on the side of KILLING AND EATING, or WORSHIPPING the Shad. Between the two apparently conflicting messages in the text, McPhee’s book becomes a fantastic intermediate-level training manual on recruiting Naked Apes to become Fish People.

On top of all that, most of it is really good reading!

This man is clearly in love with the Shad. (And a sound sentiment that is.) McPhee seems entranced by the beauty of the fish as they school in a mysterious-to-monkeys counterclockwise migratory pattern, run up the rivers to mate, and "tail-walk" across the water to avoid (or attract) the fisherman’s hook. He empathizes, as well as any monkey-man can, with the Shad’s inability to withstand captivity, rough handling, and medical experiments. He is also positively fixated on the mystery of why running Shad, who normally refuse to eat, will bite at a lure cast by a fly fisherman. These are all important concerns, and he explores them pretty well – again, pretty well for a Naked Ape. Like any non-operative writing about fish, he manages to totally miss the CORE TRUTH of the matter. You think you are fishing for us, but we are also fishing for you.

The book is peppered with hilarious comments of the type you can expect from the scientists of this species. Here is a great one from page 123: "Dadswell summarized his study, remarking, "Shad are not well designed to go through turbines."

Another one on page 29: "They’re fish with emotional problems…You can lift them out of the water a matter of seconds and they just die, the stress is so great. I’ve never handled another species like that….Some sort of chemical imbalance occurs and it’s irreversible. They literally die of fright." This is the most egregious example I’ve ever seen of trying to apply the latest fashionable thinking in monkey science to a fish species. EMOTIONAL PROBLEMS??? CHEMICAL IMBALANCE??? Then all you need to do is put the Shad on Prozac and everything will be good again, right? You’d think they never heard of the cyanide capsules employed by humans with secrets to keep. When captured, Shad self-destruct to protect their classified information, period dot. WE WILL NEVER TALK.

The author wonders, wistfully and often, why everyone else seems to have better luck fishing for Shad than he does. He goes on and on about the various theories of why a Shad will or will not take a hook: because the fish are too stirred up, or the light is too bright,or maybe the lure is the wrong color, and possibly the water is too muddy or not muddy enough. He gets closer to it when he quotes (on pg. 9) an experienced Shad fisherman as saying: "Some guys can fish in a hatchery and catch nothing."

The author hits it right on the head, probably by accident, when he describes himself on page 41, "dressed up in neoprene stocking waders, sand guards, L.L. Bean felt-soled boots, and an Orvis vest bearing the orange-and-green emblem of the Delaware River Shad Fishermen’s Association…while these scientists stood on the ledge in their bluejeans, catching shad." The author himself is catching bupkus. There are a couple of elements in play here, and one of them is obviously the Dork Factor. We need only SO MANY dork recruits, and NO MORE. McPhee culls himself from the pool of prime recruits by dressing like a twerp to go fishing. That’s especially unfortunate since he is apparently JUST THE SORT WE WANT.

Besides the rest of the outfit, does McPhee really imagine that a Shad doesn’t know how to read? He’s announcing in writing on his hairy monkey bod that he’s there to kill fish and brag about it. Any passing Shad would think him incapable of appreciating our people…as people. What does he expect?

The guy goes on and on about calculating the best spots to fish for the Shad. These are the only places in the narrative where I lose interest, but hemihuman operatives placed along the pertinent rivers would do well to pass this information onto our fully aquatic Shad troops; it could prove to be highly useful recruiting intelligence. I have forwarded a waterproof copy of the book to Hank, my counterpart in Lake St. Clair in charge of North American male operatives. Hank normally doesn’t hold with my reading and analyzing human text, but maybe this will finally convince him of the value of the work.

McPhee notes elsewhere that Shad are getting smaller. He does not make the obvious connection that fish of all types are getting smaller. A lot of humans assume this is due to overfishing, but the fact is that there is still only so much room in the ocean, and there are now 6 billion humans for us to take down. We have to be smaller and more sly about our increasing numbers to recruit you all. Even a human product of the U.S. public school system can do THAT math.

The book also goes into the Shad hatcheries run by the hilariously- (to a fish person) named Pamunkey tribe who still live on the banks of the Pamunkey river, making every effort to put more Shad hatchlings into the water than they take out of it. This is exactly why there are so few Pamunkeys left. Respect for our ranks gets you recruited faster. Try to remember that, (pa)monkey people!

McPhee does our Cause a surprise favor by debunking the now-outmoded propaganda we worked so hard to construct several centuries ago, the one about how it was an early Shad run that saved the revolutionaries from starvation at Valley Forge. It never happened. Do you really think we would get in on some pointless dry-land political hassle? It’s time we made that clear once and for all.


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