- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 27, 2002

By John McPhee
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25, 358 pages

Every spring, with about the same degree of feverish zeal, I await the return of two things: baseball season and the American shad. The pleasure got from baseball is usually fleeting, being a fan of the Chicago Cubs, a team that hasn't won a World Series in nearly a century. The shad, however, never disappoint. It is time to begin prowling around the fish markets in early April, and when the long fillets as well as the plump, dark-pink roe sacs are spotted, to bring them home in great quantity and promptly cook them as simply as possible so as not to kill their natural flavor.
The fillets always should be dredged in flour and then pan-fried in rendered bacon fat, the crisp slices of slab bacon served alongside the fish. The roe may be cooked in copious amounts of brown butter, with capers, lemon, and a good handful of flat-leaf parsley again, very simple. With all that bacon and butter, it is a good thing for the sake of the diner's arteries that the shad only run once a year. Still, April would truly be the cruellest month without shad and shad roe for dinner. My wife, who mysteriously doesn't share my passion for this most delicious of fish, has no idea what she's missing. (She doesn't like baseball either, so it's a wonder the marriage is a happy one.)
Few kinds of fish elicit as much praise and devotion as the silver-sided shad, which dwells in the ocean and returns to its natal waters to spawn, and which ranges from the northern part of Florida all the way to the Labrador Sea. Surely, no other fish could be the subject of a book that exceeds 300 pages in length but manages to hold the reader's interest from first page to last.
John McPhee's "Founding Fish" is a loving and encyclopedic paean, a wonderful blend of science writing, compelling narrative history, and passages of essayistic prose. By the end, we know more about the shad than we could ever care to about its physiology and complicated migration patterns, about what it does when residing in ocean waters and what conditions are ideal for spawning, about the prominent place it held in colonial times.
Anyone who has read John McPhee before knows that he is endlessly interested in the scientist, as much as he is the actual science. Not only does he go fishing with fishermen of all stripes, he also tags along with a variety of behaviorists and biologists, observing how these scientists work and what they do. So thorough and stylish is Mr. McPhee's reporting, that the seemingly mundane act of two fish having sex in a cylindrical tank at a hatchery can seem like the most fascinating thing in the world.
Indeed, the only sections of this book that don't work, to my taste, are those that lack the portraiture and character development at which Mr. McPhee is so good. One section that falls flat, for exaple, is the chapter detailing the removal of the Edwards Dam in Augusta, Maine.
Mr. McPhee is drawn to the science of the shad, and he wants to understand every aspect of its behavior. He also is quite willing on occasion to stop inquiring and simply observe and be overwhelmed by the mysteries of the natural world. The scenes in which Mr. McPhee finds himself in a kind of meditative state yield a quality in the prose that is both painterly and poetic: "They are coming down the river in galactic schools, and at dusk especially they will turn the water white. They dimple, dapple, leap into the air. They seem like a squall of silver rain."
I can't imagine anyone coming up with a lovely passage such as the following one when writing about, say, a catfish: "In the darkness, I was staring instead at the black vertical rod against the disco lights of Club Zadar, which had grown ever brighter with the fall of night and were flashing colors on the river. While the fish moved and sounded, and came up a little, and then sounded again, it almost hypnotized me as I concentrated on the swaying rod against the whirling colors."
To Mr. McPhee, the shad is as complicated, behaviorially speaking, as a human being. There's an irony, of course, in this. Throughout the book, he personifies the shad. He tries to understand their quirks and idiosyncracies with the attentive care of a psychoanalyst. And in so doing, he brings the fish to life in all its remarkable complexity. His ultimate goal, however, is to catch the fish and eat it. Of course, who could blame him? Still, there are those of us who eat anything and everything and have little desire to imagine our dinner at one time splashing or oinking or mooing or flapping, as the dreaded vegetarians would have us do. Now, I'll pause before I dig into my next meal of shad roe and brown butter.
But it won't be a long pause. After all, it's the catch-and-release fishermen, Mr. McPhee notes, who pose the greatest threat to the already diminishing shad population. At any rate, less than six months remain before the shad make their arduous journey from the ocean to their natal waters, before they snap at fishermen's lures and make their way to the market. Come April, after having read Mr. McPhee's book, I'll be looking forward to their return to my table with even greater enthusiasm.

Sudip Bose lives in Bethesda and is working on his first novel.

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