Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West isn’t about fish. It has many fish in it, all of them beautiful and all of them grotesque, but fundamentally it isn’t about them. Mark Spitzer’s life has fallen apart, and, in a work of breathtaking honesty, he’s invited us to watch as he tries to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.
Spitzer doesn’t tell you all this upfront. BGFAW is structured into chapters in which we tag along as Spitzer putzes around The West looking for the by-catches most fishermen abhor. He start’s with eels, which should tell you right off the bat that he is serious about the endeavor. He then moves onto paddlefish, burbot, razorback suckers and more. He also goes after some more “normal” fare in decidedly un-normal locals, like sturgeons in the middle of city. We tag along for the ride, and Spitzer’s straight forward prose makes us feel as if we have been sitting shotgun for years. It is obvious that there is something dark hanging around the margins, but it is only through a tickle of details that the reader realizes Spitzer is catching these fish for him, not us.
This is ostensibly a book review, so we should discuss this device as a tactic. I say this with great trepidation, however, because, after hanging out with him for 218 pages, it is difficult to imagine Spitzer sitting in some Machiavellian office, trying to deciding how to suck readers into his life. This book is nothing if not earnest and I think Spitzer tells his story this way because that is the way he tells stories. Nothing more, nothing less.
But back to the device: it works. Details about what is driving Spitzer to traverse the whole damn country looking for the fish that no one else cares come slowly, the way they would in a real friendship. Had you made this journey with Spitzer he would not have told you his entire life’s story on day one. Instead it would seep out, piece by piece, and your friendship would grow as you paint a more complete picture of the man. The book follows this same line of thinking, making you earn the trust of the author before he spills his soul to you. In this way BGFAW is more The Places In Between than Chasing the Sea, neither of which is a bad thing to be.
You want to know about the fishing? Well he catches a lot of fish. I particularly liked the razorback sucker, northern pikeminnow, and urban sturgeon chapters, which also seem to be the chapters where Spitzer himself is having the most fun. There are also plenty of candidates should he ever plan a sequel– sonoran suckers, Colorado pikeminnow, the native Gila and Apache trout that have been pushed to the brink by their bigger tougher cousins all jump to mind. Since this is mostly a fly fishing/hiking site, I feel obligated to point out that BGFAW mostly consists of spinner fishing, which is odd because Spitzer so obviously has the heart of a fly fisherman. While we’re picking silly nits, the fact that the Fossil Springs chub trip didn’t make the cut is almost criminal.
Spitzer also spends a lot of time talking about conservation. On this he wavers between pragmatism and idealism, which can be confusing for the reader but is probably necessary to actually conserve species. I try to keep my Conservation Biologist day job far away from the pages of Lesser Places, so we’ll keep this short: I don’t agree with everything he purposes, but I do appreciate that he is trying. That’s a hell of a lot more than most people do.
So yes, there are fish and there is conservation. But really there is a story of profound loss, a story of picking up the pieces by doing the only thing you know how, and a story of feeling so valueless that you set off to find value in other valueless things. Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West is a powerful, beautiful, and ultimately kind book. We’re lucky to have it.
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Max Wilson is a graduate student studying ecology at Arizona State University. He writes here at Lesser Places, has occasionally written for Backpacker.com, and even more occasionally written for scientific journals. You can follow him on twitter @maxomillions.