Book Review

Every writer, at some point, is urged to “write what you know,” and so readers of Tim Weed’s debut short story collection, A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing, should not be surprised to learn that he has lived and worked in more than twenty-five different countries on almost every continent as an expert for National Geographic Expeditions. In some story collections, place and landscape can end up feeling random, or like afterthoughts, if they’re even acknowledged at all. In Weed’s stories, they are as real and fully developed as the actual humans, and the narrators treat them with equal reverence and caution. The message of this treatment is clear: our relationship with our environment is as dynamic as those we have with other people. It is always an exchange; when we act, our environment responds.

The novelist John Gardner once said, “Every time you break the law you pay, and every time you obey the law you pay.” This idea runs subtextually throughout Weed’s stories: when we go against our surroundings—be they the natural world, a community of people from a foreign country, or a faraway city—they exact a price for it. Yet when we obey, when we do what is expected, we give up something we might have otherwise gained through disobedience. Weed’s characters are all navigating their own paths through this choice, in relationships with people and places. Some encounter treachery where they most feared it would be, others where they never expected it—often, this ends up being within themselves. Regardless of where they find it, they all discover the truth behind Gardner’s theorem—some because they have complied, others because they have not.

One of the most beautiful and striking passages that illuminates the man-versus-nature struggle comes in “The Afternoon Client,” when a fishing guide is hired by a rude and demanding would-be fisherman for an afternoon boat trip which quickly devolves into something much darker.

I lift the noble creature out of its native medium, and set it dripping on the deck. It senses the end and panics, flopping vigorously and throwing itself around until I manage to wrestle it under control and press my knee onto the cool scales of its side to keep it down. I pick up the truncheon, hesitate for a second, then bring it down hard on the golden skull. Its body quivers along its entire length. The broad, slightly forked tail comes up and slaps the deck three times. Clenching my teeth, I whack the beautiful fish twice more to be sure it’s dead. Then I pick it up and drop it in the holding tank. Blood fumes from its gills, staining the brine a shameful pink.

The sentences here practically vibrate with the struggle being described, as the narrator is torn between his respect for the fish and how he is bound (ever more shamefully) to its death by money. We know, though the narrator never says as much, that he wants it to live.

“Tower Eight” is another story whose protagonists, two high school boys, challenge the laws of both nature and man, and pay the price in their own ways. Both misfits, Jeff and Kimball reject the popular conventions of their peers and turn instead to a dizzying, terrifying drug-induced reality. “We don’t need those people,” Kimball tells Jeff after they’re laughed out of a party. “They think they’re some kind of elite, but really, they’re just leading these tiny . . . little . . . lives! . . . We, on the other hand, dude, know what it means to live large. Right?” As the story ends, we learn how boundless—or not—the laws of nature are, even for those most determined to escape them.

In “Scrimshaw,” a construction worker, buoyed by the beauty of the island on which he works, yields to the temptation to steal two different things, to the same destructive end. He believes the beauty of his environment to be a sign that he has made the right decisions: “On the evening flight home, he surveyed the sweep of an ocean that was glassy and calm, pink-hued and glittering in the late April sunset . . . it was as if he were being rewarded for not giving up, for working hard, for making the effort to get his lift under control.” This setup is echoed in the equally well-executed “Six Feet under the Prairie,” where another construction worker, who also fails to heed warnings from man and nature alike, faces the result of his choices.

The most resonant outcomes are those in which Weed stands aside and lets his characters find their own way by playing off the natural world. The stories set in urban environments underwhelm in comparison and don’t pack the same power as those with rural or wild settings. Overall, however, the collection feels evenly balanced, thanks in large part to Weed’s choice for the first and last stories in the book, which feature both murder and fly-fishing. If you seek a guide—on coming of age, lost love, temptations both resisted and surrendered to, and the need to both engage with and respect the planet—Weed’s book is a good choice. It won’t tell you which laws to obey and which to break—but it will show you, with simultaneous beauty and savagery, what will happen either way.

About the Reviewer

Mary Medlin's work has appeared in Colorado Review, Blackbird, The Drum, and Confrontation, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2011. She has received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and the Ucross Foundation. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.