The Fisherman by John Langan
Review by Gary Fry
I came to this book after hearing from peers how great it was, and that’s always a dangerous thing for an author. Can s/he ever live up to whatever hype a new title has garnered? I’d loved Langan’s earlier work – his inventive short stories and novellas – and so I was highly hopeful that this new novel would cut considerably more than the mustard.
The plot focuses on a guy who’s lost his wife who meets another guy who’s lost his wife and family and who together go fishing. That’s it. That’s the plot. Hollywood is not salivating. But that’s no bad thing. Because as we literature lovers know, it’s what authors do with such material that truly matters.
And here Langan gets off to a strong start. His pen-portrait of a man experiencing grief – the disjointed narrative, the ruptured habits, and transformed perceptual experience – has a pungent air of authenticity, the whole elucidated in a lyrical, laidback, breezy style that put me firmly in mind – even down to turns of phrase (e.g. “…when you get right down to it…”) – of Stephen King.
The narrative itself is riskily ambitious. After our central character meets his new fishing buddy, they go out on the road and hit a diner where some fella reveals the backstory of the place to which they’re headed. This section constitutes half the book. It’s a Machen-like “tale of terror” full of suggestive imagery and tell-and-not-show documentary realism.
Such stories within a story give the book a “modernist” feel, with a focus on communicable history and the agents upon which it relies. This strategy lends the book both verisimilitude and factual tension, as this frankly “unlikely” tale of a mysterious visitor and all the occult-ish events in which his arrival-in-town prompted may or may not have consequences for our fishermen’s imminent outing.
And so it goes. By the time the pair arrive at their destination, the suspense has been cranked up to such a degree that the landscape thrums with threat. Langan is excellent at bringing life to locations, at capturing the minutiae of everyday existence. This gives his fiction a sense of vibrancy, and if some readers might tire of what occasionally feel like over-descriptive passages or unnecessary longueurs while documenting a character’s thoughts, then they’re wrong, simple as that. Patience is required here. The prose has a density which is all grist to Langan’s mill. He’s creating a lived world, and all material is essential. The reader needs to believe in both the characters’ psychology and the location’s organic power.
As for the book’s “scary bits”, well, what can I say? These events are simultaneously familiar – a corpse walking across town whose movement isn’t right, whose misaligned bones clank together – to the strikingly new and audacious. The image of some great beast tethered to a coastline is particularly vivid, as is the presence of water forming tunnels in woodland, along which intruders must venture. All this feels mythic, packed with brain-tingling depths and fodder-for-reflection.
These sections, inescapably there as a result of more of that verbose prose, lend the end of the book much more weight, including a startling closing image (in the final paragraphs) which will, I imagine, haunt you forevermore. It’s a fine ending to a strange, intense, fussy narrative which feels both lean (it’s only 100,000 words) and packed with material (those 100,000 words essentially focus on a single day out fishing).
In short, I really enjoyed this book. Its thematic ambition and aesthetic textures greatly impressed me. But did I think it had any shortcomings? Well, I’m not sure this is a fault per se, or even whether it’s just my personal reading, but at times – hell, a lot of the time – the prose did feel very much like Stephen King. As I’ve said, even some of King’s pet phrases turn up here, but there are other things – the way Langan’s characters reflected and communicated – which felt similar. Late in the book a homeowner takes a tray of sweet comestibles around to a newly arrived neighbour (folk are always doing that kind of thing in King’s novels). This is just a petty example, but it illustrates how very Kingian this narrative felt. It’s for this reason that occasionally the book felt, to me, slightly derivative. Even the execution of the mythic material felt like the King of Lisey’s Story or Rose Madder. Maybe I’m being harsh or am in error. But I also want to be honest about my response to the book.
Another minor quibble I had involved the lengths to which the central character went to explain how he’d remembered all the details of the backstory after hearing it only once in spoken form. There’s no way he’d have recalled it in such detail, and his attempts to account for having done so felt unconvincing to me. He might have been better admitting that his recollection would be imperfect and based perhaps on familiarity with the speaker. It’s possible that he was deluding himself in this claim, and also causing the reader to question his trustworthiness (later in the book, he does wonder whether material he recalls was actually mentioned by the storyteller), but even so, this short section felt a little awkward to me.
However, let me not suggest that these issues were a hindrance to my enjoyment of such a finely pitched, rigorously structured, and genuinely unsettling piece. The best of it is uniquely Langan, the stuff he’s done so well in earlier work and synthesised here to a remarkably dense degree. It’s a memorable novel which is apt to gain only in power as time advances and all its implications fail to leave you alone.