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  • The Annual Big Arsenic Fishing Contest! by John Nichols
  • Cory Willard
John Nichols, The Annual Big Arsenic Fishing Contest! U of New Mexico P, 2016. 224 pp. Cloth, $24.95.

John Nichols is perhaps best known as the author of The Milagro Beanfield War (1974), part of his "New Mexico Trilogy." The Annual Big Arsenic Fishing Contest!, however, follows the lives and exploits of three friends who gather on the Rio Grande in New Mexico every year for the eponymous fishing contest.

The novel is told from the perspective of the unnamed narrator, a successful novelist and screenwriter who, though talented, admits to not having any lofty literary ambitions. He relays the story in an informal style, addressing the audience directly, as if the reader were listening in person. At the start the narrator states, "For well over thirty years I have been enraptured by the Rio Grande gorge [End Page 463] and the river that runs through it. . . . I moved out west from New York City to save my soul, raise a family, and get right with the natural world" (1). While the novel makes multiple references to environmental responsibility and conservation, the fishing contest that moves things along is anything but responsible.

The narrator states that "our out-of-context behavior is not something I'd recommend to anyone concerned about the future of this planet" (24). The narrator also remarks that "fishing contests aren't about the aesthetics of pastoral rumination, they are about 'harvesting the qualifiers.' In realspeak that means 'killing things'" (36). The Annual Big Arsenic Fishing Contest!, for better or worse, is not cut from the same cloth as Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It or David James Duncan's The River Why, nor does it attempt to be. This is not a novel about the spiritual oneness one can gain from fly-fishing.

Instead, the work comically centers on male relationships as the narrator is joined on his adventures by Yuri, a bitter and pretentious though principled communist and writer of fishing articles for Hook and Bullet magazine, and Bubba, a walking Texan libido who happens to be an extremely successful business mogul, novelist, and womanizer. As they compete for almost two decades in their contest and engage in "playing the dozens"—a form of masculine insulting, joking, and criticism commonly associated with African American culture—the characters are revealed to be complex, with interior spaces often hidden by their massive personalities.

The Texan, Bubba, for instance, often appears ignorant, selfish, and incredibly crude. The narrator details in the beginning that "if you mentioned 'catch and release' to Bubba he would commence foaming at the mouth. 'What are you talking about, you limpwristed commie spear chucker, did your mother cut of your manhood or something?" (8). However, as the novel progresses the reader finds out that, despite how flawed Bubba is, he is sensitive and has tremendous love for his friends, the river, and especially for his hard-working blue-collar parents and brother. We also see great acts of generosity, such as mention of Bubba giving Yuri ten thousand dollars because his wife, Sharon, needed a hysterectomy, with the specific condition that the money never be paid back. Much of [End Page 464] the complexity of the characters is not revealed in the plot's present action but through mentions and memories of other characters to one another. In this way, the cast feels true to life as their outward personas remain consistent.

The novel's last act is reminiscent of the beginning of Russell Hill's The Search for Sheepheaven Trout as the narrator returns his friend Yuri's ashes to the river they fished together. The Annual Big Arsenic Fishing Contest! is really a novel about male friendship, not fishing. In spite of the loud-mouthed trio's sometimes unlikable (though generally humorous), overly verbose cursing and masculine posturing, in the end the novel is a heartwarming tale about the deep connection and comically bizarre nature of male bonding.

Cory Willard
University of Nebraska–Lincoln


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pp. 463-465
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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