by Hank Veggian
What holds a book “together?” Many readers will look for a theme or a message, a “take-away” that makes a “point” over many pages. I call them the miners, because they look to extract something useful from a book. Other readers read for the story, and take pleasure in moving with the tides. I call them the swimmers, because they go with the flow. A third type of reader: the editor. These readers take pleasure from a book’s style, and admire how the words are assembled, above all.
There are always exceptions to the types, and other types. Can they all co-exist? How many personalities can inhabit a reader? What about a single life? And can they all be captured in a book? Janet Messineo’s Casting into the Light had me wondering about these questions. Did the book answer them? Maybe, and indirectly, but not because it sought to. And that’s why I enjoyed reading it. It’s a raw book in some ways, without major goals or some splendid architecture to showcase. It’s nonetheless a collection of stories that add up in some way to a portrait of a life, and an interesting one at that.
I will begin with a different book. It is John Cole’s Striper. It is relevant to Messineo’s book that I am reviewing, not the least of all because Messineo admits her love for Cole’s famous work (49). The general view: John Cole’s Striper: A Story of Fish and Man (1978) is considered by most as a modern classic of outdoor writing. More specifically, for those who fish for striped bass, it has obtained a quasi-religious status as the canonical book. For them, Cole’s Striper is the equivalent of what A River Runs Through It is to the trout fisherman or what The Founding Fish is to anglers who wait each spring for the American Shad to run. I can imagine one of its more zealous fans saying that if you haven’t read it, then you don’t know about Striped Bass and those who fish for them.
I wouldn’t go that far, but I do love Cole’s book. Its description of the animal’s life cycle reminded me of Rachel Carson’s work and Cole’s ear for dialogue reminded me of John McPhee at his best. Most of all, I admired Cole’s narrator and how he tells the story of his acceptance into a community that is devoted entirely to fishing for Striped Bass, both commercially and recreationally.
On this last point, Messineo’s book has a great deal in common with Cole’s. But I did not choose to read or review it because of that fact. I rarely fish from the surf, too, and when I do I generally don’t fish for Striped Bass. Nor did I choose to read or review it based on a recommendation or reputation. In fact, I had never heard of the book or its author. Sometimes I just read a book. Sometimes I review the book, and sometimes I don’t.
But I have been reading a lot of biography and autobiography of late, much of it by or about American women. So when Messineo’s book turned up in a bookseller’s catalog, I took a chance on it.
Maybe in my heart I wondered how it might stack up against other fishing books written by women of “Italian descent,” as Messineo describes herself at one point late in the book, books by Francesca LaMonte or Joan Salvato Wulff. But that is the historian in me who is always comparing and evaluating books against precedent. What I really wanted was an easy summer read.
An example of Janet Messineo’s salt water taxidermy. For more visit her website at the link below.
Casting into the Light provided that, in a way. I should first describe how the book is organized, because it is only by grasping the book’s somewhat disorganized structure that we can grasp the scale of the life, or lives, it attempts to describe.
In the early going, the book’s short chapters are devoted to Messineo’s childhood in a working class family or European ancestry (her father was Italian, her mother English). She was raised in Lowell Massachusetts, among mill workers, but she bristled against her hometown and eventually fled, a rebellious youth of the counter-culture. But in between Lowell and Haight-Ashbury, she has a stint on Martha’s Vineyard. She eventually returns there in the early 1970’s, and never leaves.
The first half of the book becomes at that point the story of a young woman who, while in the course of figuring out her life, rekindles a childhood interest in fishing. The interest quickly escalates to obsession, and eventually to something of a career. But first she must overcome the masculine barriers against women in the sport, find a mentor (and lose him, tragically) and simply learn to fish for Striped Bass on the hard coast of Massachusetts. Along the way, she kicks some bad habits and becomes sober. It is a compelling narrative, with some local color and characters, built along narratives of self-education, relationships, addiction, passion and determination.
The book then shifts gears at the mid-way mark. The short chapters becomes topical. Instead of following a timeline (the first half runs from roughly 1950-1990), the chapters become non-linear. Taxidermy, tackle, marine biology and fisheries science, motherhood, history, mentoring youth, and other topics are the focus of Messineo’s prose. The chapters feel like columns written for a monthly magazine at times, and some contain redundant elements, as if they had been written over the course of many years and the author had forgotten she had previously mentioned an event, item or person in the same way. There is some redundancy, and it is without apparent strategy in the sense that it lacks a literary goal or philosophical point.
But why should it have one, or why should we expect one? Some of the individual chapters were stood alone beautifully as little essays on a topic. My favorites included chapter 24 on mentoring a young local angler and the chapter about the “Derby Dames,” which is thea history of women fishing the Vineyard’s annual Striped Bass Derby.
On a personal level, Messineo’s chapter about the stresses of tournament fishing spoke to me. In chapter 16, she writes about second guessing herself during the 5-week event, chasing personal goals and tournament wins, balancing life and fishing as well as the physical toll it takes on the body. Her writing is inquisitive about the stress we subject ourselves to, when she asks “What causes this state of mind?” Transcripts of internal dialogue from bad days at the beach are also clever (one begins “I’m having fun” only to end with “I’m not having fun! I’m going home!”). If you are a tournament angler, you know that feeling.
As I noted earlier, Messineo’s book could be described as being organized in a strange way, as the first half is largely chronological and the second half is largely topical. There is another way to regard the book’s structure, however. Over time, as Messineo becomes an accomplished angler, writer and taxidermist, her fishing life becomes extraordinarily complicated. This is reflected in the story of her fishing gear, which begins as a simple set-up and evolves into a massive arsenal of lures, rigs, rods and reels.
In this other view which I came to hold as I read through the book, Casting into the Light is not the story of her fishing life, but of her fishing lives. It is the story of how her hobby became a profession, gave her standing in her community, helped her break social barriers and gave her life new meaning and texture. It may sound like I am attempting to justify the awkward structure of an unbalanced book, but I am not ascribing intention to the book’s organization. At some point, an angler’s life can become too complicated to discuss along a single narrative line.
In its way, Casting into the Light is like a tackle box that appears disorganized to the outsider; to its owner everything in it is precisely where it should be. Ideally, that complexity is a reward for effort. Messineo, as I have since learned, has been a pioneer and ambassador. She has both recovered lost histories and made some history of her own and this personable, sprawling book is a testament to the effort and a reward in its own right.
Janet Messineo’s website is https://www.vineyardsurfcaster.com/
Casting into the Light is published by Pantheon Books.
All Content © Henry Veggian 2022