|Lou Ureneck's carefully constructed account weaves the deep, dark past with the turbulent present. (Bill Greene/Globe Staff)|
Backcast: Fatherhood, Fly-fishing, and a River Journey Through the Heart of Alaska, By Lou Ureneck St. Martin's, 286 pp., $24.95
"Backcast," by Brookline resident Lou Ureneck, is difficult to categorize and impossible to forget. It might be described as a stunning memoir, a marvelous outdoor adventure, or a breathtaking travelogue that explores the wilds of Alaska and the intricacies of the human heart. Whatever it is, it's wonderful.
The narrative centers on rafting down a river in Alaska, where the author and his teenage son fish. The story flows smoothly from past to present. In Ureneck's skillful hands, time itself is a river that bends in many directions, and the carefully constructed account weaves the deep, dark past with the turbulent present. The river trip seems simple on the surface, but Ureneck dives deep to explore the shipwreck that his life has become. He's just divorced his wife of two decades and grown distant from Adam, his sullen son.
"Backcast" works beautifully on many levels. Ureneck and Adam float downriver, encountering bears, seeking to stave off hunger, and, most arduous of all, trying to find a way to communicate with each other about the pain of the recent divorce. The author also examines the roots of his own childhood trauma; his biological father abandoned his family, and then his stepfather did, too. "I felt as if I were walking across a pond's skinny ice. I could break through at any moment," he writes of his chaotic boyhood.
Through all this loss, Ureneck's refuge was fishing: "Nature had been a balm in my life - a quiet place and a healing force." The author uses fishing much the way Ernest Hemingway did, as a metaphor for exploring the struggles of life itself. Ureneck's fishing trip is really his way of trying to regain the love and trust of his estranged son. But it's also a way to understand himself, to move ahead by going back. His Alaska odyssey is not really about salmon, but salvation.
Rafting in the shallow part of the river, father and son encounter a massive bear and her cub. Ureneck is rightly afraid that the bear will attack, killing them or destroying the raft, and he aims his shotgun at her brown chest. This standoff is the book's most breathless moment, as a father tries to protect his son while a bear seeks to protect her cub.
Ureneck's book is partially a lyrical meditation on marriage and family, about working hard to find security and having it all fall apart. It becomes clear that his determination to hold onto his son comes from the loss of his own father. He describes building his house in Maine when he was poor and newly married, basing its design on painstaking observation of old New England houses. This self-built house, like the river, becomes a metaphor, "the expression of what I had wanted in my life," says Ureneck, "a family, a house, and a sense that I was rooted in a place."
It would be unfair to reveal whether Ureneck finds what he's looking for in Alaska, but his readers will find more than enough beauty and humanity within these pages. Lou Ureneck is a master craftsman, and in "Backcast" he has meticulously constructed a story that's lasting and splendid to behold. You need not love fishing or the outdoors to enjoy this redemptive and intensely observed journey of self-discovery.
Chuck Leddy is a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester.