The One That Got Away: A Memoir

Jul 24, 2006

Howell Raines has been fishing all his life, and it is such an important, meaningful activity for him that he has used it twice as a controlling metaphor for recounting his life in memoir.

Howell Raines has been fishing all his life, and it is such an important, meaningful activity for him that he has used it twice as a controlling metaphor for recounting his life in memoir.

In his first volume of memoir, Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis( 1993), Birmingham native Raines tells his life story through his evolution from The Redneck Way of Fishing to fly fishing to catch-and-release fly fishing. Our protagonist grows more subtle.

As a boy fisherman, he hooked ?em, horsed ?em in, cleaned ?em, and ate ?em. In maturity, in his early middle years, Raines takes up and then becomes obsessed with fly fishing, mainly for trout. His mentor, Dick Blalock, instructs him, guides him. It reminded me of the old Kung Fu TV show: ?Cast here, Little Grasshopper.?

In that earlier memoir, Raines was going through a crisis. He was divorcing. His career was shifting. He was no longer a boy with infinite energy and future time to spend. The book was both about fishing and about Raines.

This book, covering the years since 1993, is much the same, but the action has gone upscale. At the start of The One That Got Away, Raines is single, his children are grown, and he is Editorial Page Editor and then Executive Editor of The New York Times, arguably the most important job in journalism in the world.

Raines takes fishing trips to Patagonia and Siberia and other exotic and expensive places, but offers no apologies. We only live once, he suggests, and, if fishing is your passion, you should pursue it no matter what. If this seems a lot like self-indulgence, so be it. In a very amusing passage on workaholic America, Raines says, ?I say to you that America would be a happier, healthier, saner nation if more men felt they were breaking even in the pleasure department . . . . Men need what they have always needed?more toys and more time to play with them.?

Any memoir of fishing must also have fish that got away. There is the brown trout Raines loses in Lake Como, Italy, but that is a brief experience. On another trip, Raines is fishing with a guide named Tuna, off Christmas Island in the Pacific Ocean, when the Big One is hooked. Raines hooks a marlin on a fly rod and fights it for seven hours before, yes, it gets away. Like Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea, however, Raines has lost the fish but has not been defeated. He fought the marlin fairly and skillfully, on light tackle, and acquitted himself well.

That fish is, of course, a metaphor. The triumph was in the process, the fighting of the fish, not necessarily the defeating of the fish.

Raines philosophizes that life is not a process of acquisition. ?It is, in fact, a process in which our dear things slip away, slowly and elegantly, if we are lucky, rapidly and brutally if we are not.? By which he means youth, health, loved ones, you name it. He says, and he surely means it as a metaphor, ?there is still nothing as gone, as utterly lost to us, nothing as definitely absent and irretrievable as a lost fish . . . once a fish is on our line, we don?t want the imperial feeling of possession ever to end.?

There is of course an elephant in the room of this book all the way through. In a shake-up at the Times precipitated by the unethical, lying behavior of reporter Jayson Blair, Raines lost his job. How is he doing with that? He reports that he is doing just fine. Raines has fallen in love and remarried. He has finished this book, and there will be others.

Raines had at one time taken an eighteen-month sabbatical and published in the same year, 1977, his novel of Winston County, Alabama, Whiskey Man, and his oral history of the civil rights movement, My Soul is Rested. All of his working life in journalism, he had wanted to be freer to write books, both fiction and nonfiction, and now he is. Raines? catastrophe may indeed have been a fortunate fall.