Friday, April 27, 2007

River Teeth: A Book Review

David James Duncan, River Teeth: Stories and Writings (Doubleday 1995).

In honor of trout season opening, this seemed a perfect book to review.

My introduction to David James Duncan came through The River Why, which provides a new twist on the coming of age novel. Many of the same themes are explored in this collection of writing. There are stories about fly-fishing and baseball and dreamy worlds where a young child thinks the garbage man is just as special and mysterious as Santa Claus. Duncan peppers his stories with insights drawn from a multitude of spiritual traditions, mostly Christian or Zen Buddhist (I love the line about baseball and Zen being the only two things the USA and Japan import without tariffs). Most of the stories left me feeling hopeful. The first story is about young boy going with his mother and siblings into the city. He’s in the back, holding onto her red coat. To his horror, he learns that it’s the wrong red coat he’s been clutching. My favorite stories are “Garbage Man Daughter,” (a young girl learns the truth about the garbage man), “Mickey Mantle Koan” (a brother with a heart problem dies the same day a signed baseball from Mickey Mantle arrives), “Not Rocking the Boat” (an encounter between “Edward Abbey-like” fly fisherman and a commercial sport fisherman), and “Just Wind and a Creek,” (a brother sent to a prison work camp while his father dies and his girlfriend gives birth to his child).

“River teeth” refers to knots in a fallen tree which are filled with pitch and remain long after the river has rotted away the rest of the log.

Some of my favorite quotes from the stories:
“only by obedience will I survive”

“If parents had any sense, I thought, they’d take full credit for Easter egg and North Pole products and let the imaginary lackeys take the rap for the truly embarrassing things they did.”

“You don’t experience wonder the way you experience facts.”

“I’ve always known, without hesitation, how to hate this enemy. It’s taken forty years and most of an autumn to show me how, without hesitation, to love it.”

“It is faith, not knowledge, that leads us into paradise, and at age nine I had perfect faith that my reject rod, reel and line were the most magnificent tools and the Deschutes the most magnificent river that any sort of Dad & God combo could possibility have bequeathed me.”


  1. River Teeth is also a superb title! And I so agree about the experience of wonder vs the experience of facts!

    Sounds interesting and thought provoking.

    Here today via Michele's - Hiya!


  2. I have never heard of river teeth before, and it is such a curious phrase, that I am glad you explained it!

  3. It's no surprise I'm unfamiliar with the author and book, but like all your reviews this was very engaging. The stories sound enchanting. Great post!

    PS - You wouldn't have any photographs of "river teeth" now would you? Sorry, but I'm a suburb guy. Lol.

  4. Rashbre, I agree about the wonder

    Kenju, Although I know what he's talking about, I haven't heard of them before.

    V, I don't have any pictures, but I expect I'll be taking some as the weather warms.

  5. I never heard of river teeth before either. Interesting new term.

  6. Hey.

    Here via Michele. Nice take on the work. I'll need to get it and read it in my copious free time.


  7. I like the sound of this book - I'll definitely check it out!