By Scott Ely
Livingston Press, 2010
$28, Hardcover; $17.95, Paper
Reviewed by John Wendel
The eleven stories in Scott Ely’s Dream Fishing are on the dreamy and bizarre side. His characters are prosperous folks who know how to spend their leisure time and lead comfortable lives. His men and women make love to one another not out of frustration, but as genuine acts of tenderness. Yet, they are a mystery to each other. In the most straight forward prose—never ponderous or self-consciously philosophical—Ely illuminates our troubles in connecting and relating to people, even in the best of times.
A mood of estrangement runs through most of these stories, but even in their heaviest moments Ely doesn’t overpower with existential dread. His characters are either dreamers or move through each others’ lives in a dreamy fashion. Rembert, who appears in three of the stories, wants to pattern his life after young, temple-raiding Andre Malraux, a famous dreamer who plays loose with the facts of his life and image. His wife Cassie worships his seeming invulnerability, and she has memorized every detail of his body and mannerisms. She’s haunted by the idea that he is hiding something from her, but she cannot say for sure if what she’s seen is real or fantasy. Sam, in “The Fishpond,” likes to have lurid fantasies as he swims among nymphs painted at the bottom of his pool. Monica throws their lives’ order off kilter when she transforms the pool into an exotic carp pond.
Sons try to connect with fathers estranged by death, time, or emotional distance. These remote fathers seem like fictional characters in their sons’ imaginations. The narrator of “84 Avenue Foch” could never discern fact from fiction in his father’s tales. He attempts to paste together fragmentary impressions of his dad while searching for pictures he may or may not have taken of Gestapo Headquarters in Paris. In “Poisoned Arrow,” revelations of Judson’s father’s death lead him on a journey to discover buried facts about his old man, but his presence in his life remains as elusive as ever.
Trouble, violence, and temporary madness erupt throughout. Readers will find suicide after a centenarian’s birthday, a psychedelic trip on belladonna, love making in the eye of a hurricane, and a missionary mother eaten by a lion in Africa. Yet, each tale unfolds nice and easy, in lean, beautifully crafted prose befitting the characters. They run plenty deep, without any narrative trickery, and are a great joy to read. Feb. 2011
John Wendel teaches English as a foreign language at Dongguk University in Kyeongju City, South Korea.