Monday, January 2, 2017

Book Review: Never Sniff a Gift Fish

A Fair Trade Book

Title: Never Sniff a Gift Fish

Author: Patrick F. McManus

Date: 1983

Publisher: Holt

ISBN: 0-8050-0031-3

Length: 217 pages

Quote: “For the most part...they confined their merriment to a few chortles, saving the belly laughs for the embarrassing predicament that my lack of coordi­nation invariably lands me in.”

The twenty-eight stories in this volume first appeared in magazines like Field and Stream, Outdoor Life, and Audubon. They are, however, parodies of the Boastful Outdoorsman genre. McManus tells us about his adventures hiking, camping, fishing, and so on, and often has useful advice to share with would-be outdoorsmen, but rather than being presented as “One day perhaps you’ll be as clever, tough, and skilled as I was on this occasion” his stories are usually cast in the form of “How ridiculously ignorant I was on this occasion.”

Example: The story that launched McManus’s series of books, in the 1980s, was the title piece of another book, The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw. In this one McManus claims that as a little boy, on one of his first camping trips, he didn’t have a proper sleeping bag, so he bundled up for the night in someone’s old fur coat. He wasn’t proud of this moth-eaten antique so he tried not to unpack it until other campers, especially his little friend’s grandmother (Goombaw), were all tucked into their sleeping bags. During the night he woke up and stumbled outside in the tatty old fur, and for some reason Goombaw, who had also felt the urge to step out of the tent, kept screaming that there was a bear. He kept dodging around, speechless with fear, and apparently this bear stayed right behind him for...longer than you’d believe this confusion could possibly have lasted, in real life, but you get the point.

Other inhabitants of McManus’s world are preposterous too; in this book we meet a college dean who “was not smart enough to mull” as he smoked his pipe, students protesting “Poverty, War, and Mashed Turnips in the Commissary,” McManus’s old childhood pal Retch Sweeney (when they bought their first car, Sweeney told the junkman “It don’t need fenders”), his rich pal Fenton Quagmire (whose “cabin is a three-bedroom, shag-carpeted, TV-ed, and hot-tubbed villa”; many embarrassments happen to him), his older mentor Rancid Crabtree (“Smoked carp tastes just as good as smoked salmon when you ain’t got no smoked salmon”), and a few dozen more. None of them ever gets to be dumber than McManus.

If one reads too many of these stories too quickly, one can get the impression that McManus characters are all lined up outside a door, clamoring, “It’s my turn to do something dumb next!” In a world whose creator and narrator steps out to the kitchen for a quick snack just so a neighbor can ask his wife whether McManus knows anything about muzzle-loaders, just so Mrs. McManus can say “He’s in the kitchen loading his muzzle right now!”, people would have to derive some sort of inverse status from the silly things they’ve done.

However, the consequences of their foolishness are always hilarious, even when they’re framed as advice rather than narrative. For those who were disappointed, or even surprised, that the overwhelming majority of Virginians do not want elk introduced to our neighborhoods, I recommend the preliminary exercise for would-be elk hunters on page 188. “From among your fellow workers, select one who weighs approximately one hundred pounds—about the weight of a hindquarter of an elk...Do not, I repeat, do not indicate that you have chosen her because she bears any resemblance whatsoever to the hind­quarter of an elk. Then have her ride you piggyback while you step from floor to desk top, leap to a chair, step over the back of the chair and  onto the floor...This exercise, obviously, is intended to prepare you for the task of packing out a hindquarter of an elk you were stupid enough to shoot.” Laughing at the idea of yuppies doing this exercise in the office just might dislodge whatever rocks or other alien matter in the head made it difficult to understand the simple assertion, “Virginians have no use for elk.” Actually McManus is an Idahoan, but even there the usefulness of elk is virtually confined to comedy.

Who should read this book? Anyone who wants to laugh. It’s addressed primarily to men, but women laugh at it too. After about age nine, so do children.

Age 83 at the time of writing, McManus doesn't have an active web page (he retired, and his assistant "archived" ) but fans have generated a few web pages for him. The stories have been indexed at , adapted into stage-storytelling "one-man plays" at , and video-recorded to Youtube at .

The books were popular enough that they're still currently easy to find at prices that fit into this web site's standard pricing ($5 per book + $5 per package + $1 per online payment). This may change; they are going into collector price ranges fast since McManus has retired. I'm not particularly keen on the idea of books becoming more valuable after authors have no use for the money, but while authors are merely in retirement I suppose the inflation of prices for books like McManus's classics may serve a good purpose. Buy as many of them "new" on Amazon as you can while McManus can still benefit from sales. This web site will, however, sell used copies while they're available, noting that four paperback copies will fit into a package for $5, which may make our prices cheaper than those you might find directly from Amazon, and if you bought four vintage McManus books at one time you'd send us $25 (or $26 online) and we'd send $4 to McManus or a charity of his choice.