Book Of A Lifetime: A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean

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The Independent Culture

I grew up on the South Side of Chicago, in Hyde Park, a neighbourhood now best known as the home of Barack Obama. It's dominated by the University of Chicago (where Obama taught at the law school), and forms an odd oasis, a famously cerebral institution surrounded by impoverished black ghetto on three sides. The neighbourhood had more than its share of writers, but I never knew any of them – until, remarkably, a friend of my father's wrote a book that made him world-famous.

Norman Maclean was a native of Montana who had come to the university in the 1920s, after deciding to become a teacher of English literature instead of a forest ranger. As a teenager I knew him well; we'd often go for walks in the Palos Park Preserve on Chicago's western edge. His conversation was lively and unpredictable – a talk about baseball would be prefaced by a discourse on Wordsworth's view of the imagination; an account of the Saturday-night fights in the Missoula bars of his youth followed recollections of being taught by Robert Frost. Norman was a legendary teacher of undergraduates, but had written almost nothing throughout his career – two obscure articles, and a primer on map reading for American GIs during the Second World War (he was very proud of that). As my father noted wryly, in a later age when academic value was judged by "productivity", Norman would never have got tenure.

When his wife Jessie died, Norman was for a time at sea – drinking too much, volatile. Then his children suggested he write down the stories of Montana he had told them at bedtime. One of them was A River Runs Through It. The story is an elegy for his younger brother Paul, a newspaperman who, despite Norman's best efforts, was always in trouble – drinking, fighting, womanising in a way designed for repercussion. One night Paul was found murdered on the South Side, his body dumped in an alleyway next to a famously rough bar. His murder was never solved.

For all his self-destructiveness, Paul Maclean had also been an exceptionally gifted fly fishermen. Usually, the spectacle of man engaged with nature is not a pretty one (as any mediocre fisherman can attest), but Norman manages to show the extraordinary grace of his brother in action on a river, a depiction made more poignant by its coexistence with a life that was otherwise a complete mess.

For all its fame, A River Runs Through It is not flawless – there's a slapstick sub-plot about a preposterous brother-in-law. But the defects are subordinate to the spare power of the prose and to the emotions it evokes: a sense of wonder, and ineffable sadness. Though by a man of intellectual sophistication, this story was written from the gut, yet speaks to the heart. As with his conversation, Norman's book showed me there was nothing contradictory about finding a redemptive quality in even the coarsest corners of life.

Andrew Rosenheim's new novel, 'Without Prejudice', is published by Hutchinson