Mark Kurlansky’s non-fiction book about cod, titled Cod, is a critically praised bestseller that’s bordering on modern-classic status. It’s easy to forget that when Cod was released in 1997, nobody expected a book about a goddamned fish, of all things, to change the course of publishing. But Cod kicked off a craze of popular books devoted to the history of everyday objects — Kurlansky’s own Salt followed soon after Cod, and other books about screwdrivers and paper and rats tumbled down the pipeline. (It should be noted that all of these books owe a debt to John McPhee’s exquisite Oranges, which was published a full three decades before Cod.)
When Cod was still topping bookstore bestseller lists, though, many Northwesterners took offense at Kurlansky’s choice of starring fish. Why would he choose a fish as drab and plain as cod when the mighty salmon, a fish which has lived at the very center of Northwestern culture for centuries before white people ever set foot out here, had never had a book devoted to it?
It took two full decades, but the salmon response to Kurlansky’s Cod has finally arrived. It’s titled Upstream: Searching for Wild Salmon, from River to Table, and it does much the same work as Cod, looking into the environmental, cultural, and culinary impact of wild salmon versus salmon farming. It leaps back into the past and delves into the science and follows the food chain from fishermen to fancy restaurants. Even better, it’s written by Langdon Cook, the Seattle journalist who has written extensively (and well) about mushrooms.
Unfortunately, Upstream is kind of ... well ... the truth is, it’s pretty rough. It’s boring in some parts and awkward in others, and some of it is terribly written. Take this passage, about an acquaintance of Cook’s named Jon Rowley:
One time Rowley came over to my house for a party. Clad in his signature khakis and white sneakers, he shuffled outside to my back patio, where most of the food had already been devoured, and found a cold piece of salmon on a platter. After taking a bite he turned to me jovially. “You might want to lower the heat,” he said.
This passage is fine. But it’s not great. That “Clad in his signature khakis and white sneakers” deserved to be cut on the first round of edits — why point out that someone dresses like 95 percent of other basic white dudes when it’s irrelevant to the story? And how does someone turn jovially? Did he jovially suggest that Cook lower the heat? Or is the “jovially” referring to his body language? Is the jovially supposed to play off the “shuffled” earlier in the passage, as though the salmon brought him back to life?
You might argue that this sounds like small stuff, like nitpicking. But I’d claim that these small choices — the placement of adverbs and the selection of which details to incorporate into the piece, and where — amount to everything that matters in good writing. The first half of Upstream is overcome with little sins like this: unnecessary cliché, awkward phrasing, the right details landing at the wrong moment.
To be clear, the book doesn’t fail because its subject matter is uninteresting. On the contrary, whenever Cook interviews someone, the book instantly becomes more charming. Perhaps the sins of the prose seem more glaring when juxtaposed with characters like this fisherman who explains his policy for keeping or throwing back his catches:
”I’m not a doctrinaire. We can keep a small male if we feel like it when the time comes, if the Pleistocene hunter-gatherer in us is up for it. Let’s see what happens. A fifteen-pound chrome-bright buck eats as well on the plate as anything that swims.”
That quote right there? That’s fucking beautiful. That last sentence — “A fifteen pound chrome-bright buck eats as well on the plate as anything that swims.” — is as good as Elmore Leonard’s best dialogue, with its twists and turns and interesting rhythms. You want the fisherman to take over and tell the rest of his story in his own words, but then the quote ends and we’re back to Cook, trudging along through the narrative.
To be fair, Upstream gets better — more interesting, better-written — as it goes along. Cook gets bitten by a jellyfish, he digs into the shameful environmental history of south Seattle, and he is overcome with pesticides while standing in a river: “It was chemical warfare out here in the Central Valley, and every last piece of artillery was being deployed in this war against nature.” The second half of the book is vastly more entertaining than the first, but not entertaining enough for me to recommend that readers fight their way through.
Upstream probably could have benefitted from a ruthless editorial smackdown — one that trimmed some hundred pages or so, leaving it as slender and peculiar and memorable as McPhee’s book about oranges. Unfortunately, the uncomfortable fit between narrator and subject leave the book splashing about for far too long, and with very little enjoyment for the reader.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant