Book review: 'The Contest'

Special to The Recorder

The Contest” by James Hurley (Islandport Press, 250 pages, $22.95)

If anyone had told me a couple of weeks ago that I would be moved by a book about fly fishing, I would have told that person to go jump in a lake, preferably one well stocked with fish.

I am not an angling enthusiast. I read “The Contest” by James Hurley of Easthampton because my editor at The Recorder assigned the novel to me to review, not because its subject matter interested me.

Nevertheless, it took me only a few pages to fall in love with the author’s writing and his story — and to realize that “The Contest” is about a lot more than fly fishing. It’s about people’s relationships to each other and to nature. The novel is funny, imaginative, and touching.

Narrator Benedict Salem (nicknamed “BS”) comes to the small Maine inn known as the Crossing House at a turning point in his life. A disaffected teacher from Massachusetts, he is drawn to the innkeeper, to the setting and to the possibilities for trout fishing behind the inn.

BS purchases a house nearby and begins to eke out a living as a writer. He spends long evenings drinking and talking with the innkeeper, Bill, an avid fisherman.

Bill is a recent widower. To bolster his friend’s spirits, BS creates a club of local men who enjoy fly fishing. The members constitute a cross section of the town and include the local storekeeper, a minor politician, a musician and a bank teller.

One night over too many beers, the group decides to hold a contest to determine which type of constructed fly — wet or dry —makes the perfect lure for trout.

The narrator dislikes the idea of the contest from the start, understanding that the nature of the word “perfect” will forever remain subjective. Nevertheless, he agrees to participate.

Competitiveness flames within the group, and the contest becomes a fierce battle that reveals flaws within each combatant. It tests not just the quality of the individuals’ fishing skills and their flies but also that of their characters.

Hurley, who is a musician and artist as well as a writer, has mercy on the fly fishermen he has created. In the end he lets them emerge from the temporary madness of the contest. They learn to nourish the best in themselves, forgive the foibles of others, and savor each moment of life.

These are lessons we can all embrace, whether we fish or not.

Tinky Weisblat is the author of The Pudding Hollow Cookbook (www.merrylion.com) and Pulling Taffy (www.pullingtaffy.com). She is always looking for new books from Franklin County-related authors to review for this paper. If you have a book suggestion, email her at Tinky@merrylion.com.

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