Spitzer, Mark. Beautifully Grotesque Fish of the American West. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2017.
Fish maniac, Mark Spitzer, devotes insane hours and energy to piscine pursuits with the rod and notebook studying various species, interviewing anglers and biologists, catching lots of fish, letting most go and keeping a few to prepare using his mouthwatering recipes. He also thinks deeply about our cultural and biological relationship with fish and water. A dynamic writer with an original voice, Spitzer’s books range from experimental poetry on hellbender salamanders, novels, and literary translation to a suite of sterling nonfiction that includes Season of the Gar (2010), Return of the Gar (2015), and In Search of Monster Fish (2019), featuring a chapter on gar fishing in the Arkansas Ozarks. He has also appeared with Jeremy Wade on River Monsters.
Spitzer lives and teaches in the foothills of Central Arkansas, and Beautifully Grotesque Fish opens with the elusive American eel—“yep, they’re actual fish”— on the Caddo and Ouachita Rivers. The author reminds us how eel mysteries have inspired work by Aristotle, Pliny, and Sigmund Freud, who spent weeks dissecting eels “in hopes of writing the seminal study on their testicles. Unable to find these, he moved on to psychology. Go figure.” Freud may have had a hard time because young eels are intersexual, “meaning they can go either way,” and environmental factors influence their ultimate gender. In one of the most fascinating stories of fish behavior, all American and European eels migrate as much as 10,000 miles to the Sargasso Sea to spawn. But eel populations are in jeopardy and Spitzer joined biologist Casey Cox to help study their life cycle. Using electrofishing, the two collect only one specimen from the Caddo, but they meet a self-proclaimed “redneck” mother sporting tattoos and cutoff camo. The woman had caught a bunch of eels and she advises them to use chicken livers for bait. Casey hands her a research survey, and “She accepted it like a pamphlet from a Jehovah’s Witness, then hit the gas and drove away.”
The Ozarks are also highlighted in a lively chapter on paddlefish. Combining his astute and sometimes wry descriptive skills with a respect for science and natural history, Spitzer gives a playful, insightful, and thoroughly readable profile of Missouri’s state fish: “That crazy flat spatulated nose is so unlike anything we’ve ever seen on any other fish that our imaginations naturally picture this fish as some sort of alien life form.”
Spitzer’s human associates are often as fascinating as the fish he meets. On this outing in late March, the author picks up Hippy, once a “goofy, gangly, wild-bearded longhair with stinky feet and overalls” who now has “a respectable haircut and a relatively clean shirt.” Spitzer and Hippy drive up to Warsaw, Missouri— “Paddlefish Capital of the World”—and connect with a local guide to troll Lake of the Ozarks and Truman Reservoir, “home to the healthiest paddle-populations in the world.”
As plankton grazers, paddlefish don’t take bait or lures like most fish. Hippy says they are “gentle, ancient . . . swimming around looking like blimps.” But their flesh is delicious and snagging them is a local sport. Spitzer and Hippy don’t hook any paddlefish on Lake of the Ozarks, yet Spitzer provides an exposé on the overdevelopment of the lakeshore and on poaching rings involving Russian demands for caviar: “It could be argued that due to the lack of true sturgeon roe—which is the purest cocaine of the caviar trade—paddlefish eggs are synonymous with a cheaper-grade street crack.”
Humor aside, a single large female paddlefish with 20 pounds of eggs could be worth $4,000 on the black market. Missouri and other state agencies have cracked down on these destructive trades, and Spitzer praises paddlefish hatchery programs that have successfully raised these precious creatures for restocking and for their meat and delectable eggs. While writing this review, news arrived that the Chinese paddlefish has been declared extinct. Biologists in the People’s Republic were never able to successfully rear paddlefish in captivity, and overfishing and habit degradation in the Yangtze River killed them off. Spitzer is optimistic about the future of Ozark paddlefish, however. Fishing Truman Lake the following day, Spitzer and Hippy snag and land a few catfish and two keeper paddlefish over thirty pounds.
Like noodling, trotlining, gigging and bow fishing, all popular in the Ozarks, snagging is a questionable practice by some sporting standards. Spitzer always tackles these controversies with open honesty that can be humorous, self-admonishing, and sincerely remorseful. In talking with Hippy at the end of the fishing trip, Spitzer admits, “. . . it’s a weird way to fish. I still don’t know how I feel about snagging those catfish by accident, and I keep wondering if this sport is really a sport. I mean, we didn’t burn one calorie trolling out there for two days straight.” Hippy acknowledges his friend’s comments and they conclude that everything about paddlefish and catching them is weird: “There’s just nothing not weird about paddlefish.”
Beautifully Grotesque Fish is an intelligent, energetic, slightly gonzo adventure across the West’s great waters, from the Ozarks through Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska, up to Minnesota, and across to Idaho and Oregon where Spitzer wrestles with white sturgeon, the largest freshwater fish in North America. He also wrestles with environmental and personal crises. Spitzer’s narrative voice is strong and daring but also reflective and humble, and at times his casual style almost sounds careless. While alligator gar fishing in Texas, he writes: “I was thrilled to be psyched and psyched to be thrilled like I hadn’t been in years—no doubt due to some personal crap I’d recently gone through, which I won’t go into.” In the next paragraph he says, “No, I take that back. I will go into it,” and he opens up about a painful divorce “eating at me like battery acid” and the death of his mother—“it was about as sucky as a year can get.” You might expect this phrasing from a pop star’s memoir, not a professor’s book on fish, but Spitzer’s unaffected voice succeeds in telling us a richly informed, compelling, and honest story. “These fish provided transcendental moments,” he writes in the conclusion, “that reassure our chromosomes that Nature can save us from ourselves.” Spitzer’s devilishly good writing helps minister this salvation.
Henry Hughes teaches a variety of literature and writing courses. In addition to introductory classes in poetry and fiction, and surveys in American literature, his seminars include Japanese and Chinese Literature in Translation, Literature of the American Civil War, American and British Nature Writing, Literature of the Sea, Fishing Across Cultures, Modern and Contemporary Poetry, and Oregon Writers. He offers writing workshops in poetry, literary journalism, and creative nonfiction, with special interests in book reviewing, nature writing and the memoir.
Henry Hughes grew up on Long Island, New York. After completing an MA in Creative Writing at Purdue University in 1990, he spent five years working in Japan and China. He finished a Ph.D. in American Literature at Purdue in the spring of 2002 and began teaching at Western Oregon University.
Hughes is the author of four collections of poetry, including Men Holding Eggs (2004 Oregon Book Award), Moist Meridian (2011 Finalist for the Oregon Book Award), Shutter Lines (2012, with photographs by Paul Gentry) and Bunch of Animals (2016). His poems and essays have appeared in Antioch Review, Carolina Quarterly, Shenandoah, Seattle Review, Southern Humanities Review, Gray’s Sporting Journal and Harvard Review, and he is a regular book reviewer for Harvard Review Online. His fishing memoir, Back Seat with Fish: A Man’s Adventures in Angling and Romance, was published in 2016 by Skyhorse. He is the editor of a Journal of Melville Studies special issue, “Melville in the Marquesas,” and the Everyman’s Library anthologies, The Art of Angling: Poems about Fishing and Fishing Stories.
Mark Spitzer, novelist, poet, essayist, and literary translator, grew up in Minneapolis where he earned his bachelor’s degree at the University of Minnesota in 1990. He then earned his master’s in creative writing from the University of Colorado. After living on the road for some time, he found himself in Paris as writer in residence for three years at the bohemian bookstore Shakespeare and company. In 1997 he moved to Louisiana, became assistant editor of the legendary literature journal Exquisite Corpse, and earned an MFA from Louisiana State University. He taught creative writing and literature for five years at Truman State University and is now an associate professor of creative writing at the University of Central Arkansas. Author of more than 25 books, he has published nonfiction fish books, memoirs, novels, poetry collections, plays, articles on creative writing pedagogy, and books of literary translation. Spitzer has also been the official Nebraska state record holder for the yellow bullhead.