The Last Marlin
by Fred Waitzkin (Viking, $24)
The author of Searching for Bobby Fischer has written a graceful father-son memoir that artfully braids rich, disparate strands: Atlantic game fishing, the New York wholesale hustle, dysfunctional Jewish clannishness, and the decline of pelagic life. It's the story of a boy growing up on Long Island in the 1950s under the mismatched influences of his parents: Waitzkin's father is a sickly, Luckies-sucking supersalesman who introduces saltwater angling to his two sons; his mother is a jazz-bedazzled painter whose father owns the family fluorescent-lighting business and who hangs out with Jackson Pollock while disdaining both maternity and fishing. This elegiac view of remnant worlds, of stinkpots and what is now called declining family values, infuses the book with tragedy even as it celebrates the slap of tuna on wet decks off Montauk and Bimini. Waitzkin comes to understand how his father's obsession to prevail in business and his mother's rejection of all conventional ambitions destroyed their marriage and left their sons adrift. Only fishing offers wonder, and hope: "The ocean just opens up, reveals itself...there's no more resistance or dead water, the clues are sharp and urgent." But despite the unraveling of both family and family business, the author maintains his affection for his difficult, spendthrift father. He marries a woman who, unlike his mother, happily fishes and cuts bait; after his father's death, he transforms himself from son to dad with her help. Meanwhile, however, his beloved Bimini is also transformed—by sportsmen in ever-bigger boats comparing catch-and-release to sex without orgasm as they eagerly decimate the figurative last marlin.
Barrow's Boys: The Original Extreme Adventurers, a Stirring Story of Daring, Fortitude, and Outright Lunacy
by Fergus Fleming (Atlantic Monthly, $26)
John Barrow, Second Secretary of the British Admiralty from 1816 to 1848, possessed, in his own words, "an inherent and inveterate hatred of idleness," particularly other people's. This deskbound commander dispatched armies of explorers in search of the sources of the Congo and Niger Rivers as well as the fabled Northwest Passage. Like most stouthearted Englishmen of his day, he became fascinated with the Arctic, just as we are today with the men who first plunged headlong into that world of ice. Bent on discovering the Passage, he secured government backing for John Ross, William Edward Parry, and John Franklin, among others, many of whom encountered incredible hardship and even death. This book is more a crowded history than a biography of Barrow, and some of the stories of his dauntless boys are presented a bit too dryly. But Fleming has done well to reintroduce us to those hard explorers and to the era's most effective armchair traveler.
Frost on My Moustache: The Arctic Exploits of a Lord and a Loafer
by Tim Moore (St. Martin's, $24)
Decidedly less grand exploratory aspirations emerge from this travelogue, in which British humorist Moore sets out to retrace the voyage of one "Marquess of Dufferin and Ava," who supposedly sailed circa 1850 from England to Iceland, Norway, and Spitzbergen not in pursuit of glory or new lands, but merely for the hell of it. (As the reader suspects, this Marquess is wholly fictional.) In the same spirit, Moore is highly attuned to human fallibility—his own—and general ludicrousness, and finds both in watery Scandinavian lands ripe with pylsurs (hot dogs), moonshine, and unfailingly friendly natives. Instantly ill on his sail north in a container ship from Scotland, Moore never fully recovers, which lends his tale—merely funny when not debilitatingly hilarious—an English patient's perspective through a careening porthole. Alternately whining and projectile vomiting, Moore bikes across Iceland, bends an elbow with various slightly daft Norsepersons, and almost collides with a volcano on a prop-plane tour of the fog-fouled island of Jan Mayen. By this point we no longer care that Dufferin is Moore's invention. The pleasure of this tale derives from the author's own excellent folly, and from his send-up of those super-serious historical re-creations in which humor is left at home.
by Jane Smiley (Knopf, $26)
The author of A Thousand Acres has written a brick of a novel that deals with Thoroughbreds and humans, in that order. Smiley weaves together more than a dozen plots—story lines that, studded with stirring outdoor spectacle, transport the reader from Del Mar and Aqueduct to Churchill Downs and Epsom Downs. The thrill of racing is muddied by the interior musings of both anthropomorphized horses and crooked people: owners with more money than brains and riders with plenty of brass and zero emotional equilibrium. Buddy Crawford, trainer and born-again Christian, and one of the many shapers of horseflesh who provide a kind of collective protagonist, distills the novel's brutal thesis: "None of these horses would be here if they weren't meant to race and win. The breeder is their God and the racetrack is their destiny and running is their work." In service of that absolutism, humans hobnob in a moveable feast of expensive digs and ultimate tack, shining briefly like racers in the paddock and then fading as new contenders are led in. The genre is high-tone blockbuster, the voice breezy. The best characters embody both horse sense and human longing; the best scenes are the races, with their clod-slinging elation and disappointment. Smiley knows her stuff, from rigged auctions to split hooves, but by the finish line the reader has wearied of this flawed culture and its rules and heroes, all of the latter equine.