Veteran author John Nichols—perhaps best known as the novelist behind the Robert Redford-helmed film, The Milagro Beanfield War—has just published his thirteenth novel. Judging by its title alone, we might guess correctly that The Annual Big Arsenic Fishing Contest! is of the fish story persuasion, an age-old subgenre of the tall tale and distant relative of the barroom yarn. These narrative modes share hyperbole, flamboyance, and braggadocio to invoke “the one that got away.” Except, as in Daniel Wallace’s novel Big Fish, Nichols deploys these tropes as a lens through which to investigate his larger-than-life characters.
Set along the Big Arsenic Springs, a sub-river of the Río Grande, The Annual Big Arsenic Fishing Contest! spans decades of yearly fishing contests held among three best friends. Each year, the friends wade into the Big Arsenic and “abrogate the longevity of its denizens.” Whoever scores the most points for their fish wins a garish trophy and is celebrated at an intimate banquet later that night. The men even drag along mistresses and lovers to celebrate at day’s end, on the condition that the women dress like tarts and provide a capable foil to the men’s intellectual brand of masculinity. As the years pass, the men’s inevitable physical degradation is compensated by their growing—and occasionally dangerous—machismo. Along the way, Nichols lays bare their personalities with surgical precision, providing brilliantly detailed reliefs of the three main characters, taking them from larger-than-life to achingly human.
The three are Bubba, an oafish, “archetypal Texas bounder,” and wildly successful entrepreneur; Yuri, a high-strung intellectual whose snobbery exceeds byzantine bounds; and the narrator, unnamed in the book, who clearly stands in for Nichols himself. (Regarding the narrator: he and Nichols share too many qualities to list, though their most conspicuous similarities are a past as a screenwriter and novelist, multiple failed marriages, congestive heart failure, and a love of fishing the Big Arsenic.) Publicly, Nichols has called the characters “three idiots.” The characters are, in fact, astonishingly brainy; all three write novels, spar in endless literary one-upmanship, and are forever trying to outwit each other in games of the “dozens,” battles of increasingly verbose and colorful insults. The artistry of the insults allows us the clearest window into the characters’ souls, revealing men who are at once repugnant and fragile. Here’s a tidbit taken from one of many diatribes—some of which are literally pages long—by one of Nichols’s vociferous characters:
When I read his stupid novel you know what I thought? I thought it was one big cliché from start to finish. It’s so derivative and sophomoric and jejune that it embarrassed me. I’ve read better fiction in the Reader’s Digest at the St. Vincent’s emergency room. That book is like a Keane painting of big-eyed clowns with teardrops on their fat painted cheeks. They should’ve published it with a velveteen fuchsia jacket and taped a pink lollipop on the back, then sent you on the rubber chicken circuit to plug it in the Catskills.
Because each of the characters displays grating egoism, braggadocio, sexism, and so on, the reader would be forgiven for loathing them. However, as the book progresses, it is made clear that these faults emerge from the insecurities and fears of each character; these faults hurt the characters themselves more than anyone around them. As such, we actually sympathize for them, and by the time the book enters its last third—a section marred by tragedy—Nichols has performed a dazzling trick: to make us actually care about these windbags.
Nichols lets all of this play out in a slow, drifting narrative, eschewing plot in favor of basking in prose as showy, prismatic, and lush as Big Arsenic’s primordial riverbanks, which are “not only chock-full of chubby fish but also a sensational state of mind, a rough-and-tumble paradise where you could still feel primal vestiges of Eden wriggling at the tip of your line.” Nichols’s prose is not only equal to the elegiac river itself, but his deftness with language extends to narrative techniques as well, such as breaking the fourth wall, which he does often. For example, as the last chapter begins, the narrator teases: “So stay glued to your seats and don’t switch the channel, this chapter is the payoff of my convoluted morality tale.” These asides could be cloying in a lesser author’s hands, but Nichols manages to turn them into morsels of wit and conspiratorial glee, as in one gloriously clunky sex scene:
Purple prose alert! In the hay that night Louella slithered all over me like an erotic starfish with its hundreds of suction cups delicately nibbling my extremities top to bottom from my hammertoes to the tip of my pulsating nose, electrifying every inch of skin and muscle with her rapacious eagerness to make love with me like Julius Caesar’s favorite concubine after his mighty subjugation of Gaul.
Really, and I can only guess if this is intentional, Nichols’s greatest feat is to seduce the reader into wondering if we are provided a view into his own psyche. With a personal and raw narrator who in innumerable ways parallels Nichols, the end of the book finds us extending our sympathies beyond the characters and to John Nichols himself. In dramatic terms, this authorial empathy amplifies the novel’s heartbreaking moments, as we sense they come from a place of real, human angst. John Nichols hints that he is exploring the dark notions of life’s terminus and his proximity to finishing his life’s work. As in Charles Bukowski’s alter-ego, Hank Chinaski, a fictional creation used as a foil to plunder dark and personal truths, The Annual Big Arsenic Fishing Contest! offers an indirect glimpse of the human writing the book. But isn’t that the ultimate trope of all fish stories, that truth swims just beneath the surface?
About the Reviewer
Kirk Sever’s writing has appeared in Angel City Review, Unbroken Journal, Rain Taxi, Bird’s Thumb, and elsewhere. Additionally, Kirk’s work has earned him runner-up status in both the Academy of American Poets George M. Dillon Memorial Award and the Northridge Review Fiction Award. He currently teaches writing at California State University, Northridge.