Henning Mankell

I have just finished a Henning Mankell novel, Firewall.  On the back of the book is the usual author photograph but this one isn’t usual.  Mankell faces the camera wearing a tan lightweight windbreaker, a dark shirt unbuttoned at the neck, his hair tousled, perhaps wind. But his eyes gaze directly at the lens, and they are intense, as if he is accusing the watcher of something. The book was published in 2003, when he was 45 years old. Cancer took him at 67.  After he was diagnosed with the cancer and was told that there would be no hope, he set about writing his last book, Quicksand, what it means to be a human being. It is a remarkable book, and he does not dwell on his upcoming demise. He spells out a lifetime of protest against the wickedness of those in power. What his characters say is what Mankell thinks.  In the last page of Firewall, his daughter, Linda, says, “Everyone talks about power. But no one really questions institutions like the World Bank, or the enormous power they wield.  How much human suffering have they caused.” 

         In Ghost Trout, I quoted Mankell: “I noticed that my memory often transported me back to my childhood. But it wasn’t long before I realized that my memory was trying to help me understand, to create a starting point that would enable me to cope with the potentially fatal catastrophe with which I have been stricken.”

         He chose when he was on his way to school at nine years of age.  I, too, chose such a time in Ghost Trout. I was nine years old at school in Arlington Heights, Illinois, and the snow was swirling past the tall double-hung windows of the old classroom, and I found myself daydreaming that I was outside in the snow.  I was making up a story.

         Mankell’s writing is uneven but at times is so powerful that it defies description. I look again and again at that photograph on the back of that book.  It fills me with sadness that he was struck down He would be 73 now, thirteen years younger than I will be next week. I finished his novel at three o’clock this morning. I wanted to read another..  

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the clock is ticking


            I came to The realization that I am what the 49er pioneers called a “humbug.” It’s a word for someone who is not what he seems to be.  I project the sense of someone who is healthy, charging around at 86, but in fact, I am not that at all,  I am unsteady, fell on the floor of this room last night and could not right myself. I felt with my arm, trying to get it under myself, raise my body so that I could get on my knees.  Oh shit, I said to myself..  Get yourself upright!  Get the fuck up!

            In two weeks I  will go off to Belize with Nathaniel, but I will fish half a day and spend the rest of the time recuperating, letting him complete the day with the guide.  I fished with Ethan Newby on the North Fork of the Yuba two weeks ago, and I did very little fishing.  Mostly I picked my way around the rocks, tried to find some place to stand where I would not fall, made some casts (pretty good casts at that!) and raised a single fish.

            Duncan MacSwain, who is my age and was taking us to the Amazon wrote that he had a heart attack, had spent the last eight days in a hospital, and obviously Duncan isn’t taking anyone to the Amazon this year.   He had the heart attack while he was exercising on his stationary bicycle!  So much for exercise.  The fact that Duncan and I are the same age is not lost on me.

            So Nathaniel and I will go to Belize, take a boat out to the Turneffe Atoll thirty miles off the coast, and with any luck he will catch bonefish and maybe a barracuda and if he is lucky like his uncle Graham he will catch a big snook or a tarpon. I am doing this for Nathaniel. I will sit on the deck of the cabaña in the afternoon and watch the rollers come in off the Caribbean, wait for a magnificent frigate bird to wheel overhead, maybe take a swim in the pool, have a scotch, wait for the afternoon wind to bend the palms. It’s as if the clock is winding down. It needs to be reset each day, the stem pulled out and the hands turned to reflect the time that has slowed.  I did a bit of math, and my heart has beat more than 260 million times in my life.  Amazing. Probably more than that if you take into account the rides on the old wooden roller coaster at Santa Cruz. Which I did in my seventies.There is a picture somewhere of me, mouth open ,sucking air as the car rounded the final turn. Not dead yet.

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trout, children and grandchildren

The things one hangs on the wall give a good picture of the kind of person that sits at a desk surrounded by those photos and prints.  I have a photo of me and my two sons standing next to Sagehen Creek the day Art Morris died. We all hold some piece of equipment that Art gave to us; a photo of Graham wading across Nelson Creek, Geoffrey in the background casting to a pool; me with a glass of scotch and Quincy in those big boulders above Dillon Beach. And a painting by Winslow Homer of a fly fisherman in a canoe at daybreak or sunset on a New Emgland lake, Lots of prints of trout; a man with a huge salmon over his shoulder on the Columbia River in the early 1900s; me in my El Toro on what had been the mill pond in Graeagle, ’daughter Laurel, about four or five years old still in her PJs at the sink with Great Aunt Edna in Saratoga. Another photo of her daughter Michaela and me standing on the beach at Stinson, watching the waves come in. Michaela must be about three years old..Geoffrey holding up a trout he has caught on the McCloud River. My password on this computer is Trout, Who would have guessed it?

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the new deck

Here is the new deck.  I have sat in that chair on the left ,the “Bordeaux” chair with my afternoon drink looking at the oaks across the canyon in the wind. It is, as you can see, a remarkable piece of carpentry; Graham did the deck floor and Graham and Geoffrey did the railings.  I sit there and marvel at their craftsmanship, And now I reflect on how they have come so far from working with me on projects for years, beginning as teenagers, mostly half-assed projects of mine, the plans on the back of an envelope,  but they polished their skills and now I am enjoying what they have learned. Graham has a truck-full of tools, and knows how to use them. He is the kind of carpenter that my father would have approved of.  My father, who was a master carpenter,  measured things in 64th of an inch, knew which side of the saw to start the cut. So I have a deck built by young men (well, not exactly “young”) who know how to use their tools.  It is a solid deck, carefully built, and I can sit on it and admire the green that flourishes on the far side of the canyon  It is now the most craftsmanlike part of the house.  When I said to Geoffrey, “I owe you for that wire,” he said, “No you don’t.  Do you know how much it cost to raise your children?  Tens of thousands of dollars.”

         I am taking his oldest son with me to an atoll off the coast of Belize so Nathaniel can catch a bonefish and perhaps a barracuda. Nathaniel and I will celebrate my 86th birthday. And now I sit on my new deck and sip my drink and watch the wind move the leaves of the oaks like wind over green water. 

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The wind is up. It would be hard to cast in this wind.  It sweeps up the Feather River and blows  across Greenhorn creek, whirls around Black Butte. It is a wind that is up to no good. Three o’clock in the afternoon, and there is no point in standing in  a  stream, no point in trying to cast into the stream, go back to the truck and have a scotch and wait.  Eventually the wind may die and it will be possible to lay out a line, and maybe it will not.  Maybe this will be one of those days when it’s better to cash in your chips.  

            When the wind blows like this the line won’t lay out, it whips past your head, sometimes the hook catches in your hair and worse yet,,catches in your scalp where you can’t see it and you have to get someone else to pull the hook through the skin until the barb shows and snap it off with a pair of pliers.  Hurts like hell.  The kind of hurt that produces little shrieks.

            “Fuck! That hurts!” 

            “Hold on, Dad, I’ve almost got it. Bend over a bit more.”

            So the wind is up, the sigh goes through the trees, whips the surface of the water into little riffles, sweeps away any insect that hatches,  hawks hover, riding an updraft, searching for a vole or a mouse stupid enough to go into the open in the meadow Maybe when the sun reaches the ridge and it begins to darken, the wind will die. It often does at dusk. The great valley heats up in the afternoon, the hot air rises up canyon but the sun disappears and it cools and there is the quiet before the wind begins to flow down canyon.  Perhaps an hour. 

            I will wait..

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1939 Ford

My brother sent me a photo of an automobile I owned in 1954.  It was a 1939 Ford sedan, a gleaming dark green with white sidewall tires. The windshield cranked out and when in the mountains I could slip a trout rod in through that opening, didn’t have to beak the rod down.

             It had a 1953 Mercury engine in it and was powerful enough to go over any back country road. The only problem was that the big engine heated up the engine compartment, heating the fuel line to boiling,  resulting in vapor lock., something that modern cars with fuel injection systems never experience. The fuel boiled and the fuel pump would not pump the fuel that was nearly steam into the carburator.   Going up a canyon the engine began to heat and suddenly the engine stopped.  It meant waiting a half hour for the fuel line to cool or pouring cold water on the fuel line.  I kept a canvas water bag hooked over the front fender for just such occasions.

            I drove that car up the Feather River Canyon multiple times, drove it high into the ridges above Bucks Lake, above  English Bar on the Middle Fork of the Feather, and all the way to the top of Mt Hough.

            When I got my draft notice I sold it to a kid who loved the sound of the engine.  His father, a mechanic, said, it’s a piece of shit.  I won’t work on it, but the kid bought it anyway paying me one hundred dollars in five and ten dollar bills. That was exactly what I had paid Ken Carpenter when I bought it from him,

            I wish I had a garage where I could have put that car on blocks and kept it.  Today it’s worth about fifteen thousand  dollars as is. 

            The car increased in value. I didn’t.. 

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Travels with Charley

 Nearly 2,000 black people were lynched during the reconstruction,and the lynchings continued up into the 40’s when I was in high school.  The black students who came to Berkeley High School when their parents came north to work in the Kaiser shipyards brought with them stories that they never told their white classmates.  They were in a new world where they shared seats with white kids, and no one threatened to end their lives. The lynching were raw, hangings, dousing with gasoline and set afire,  dragged behind trucks until they were dead. And the perpetrators were immune from prosecution.  It is a history of violence, death, strangulation and burnings equivalent only to the ancient inquisition. But it had no religious aspect; only a hatred of black faces and a belief that blacks were beasts of burden.worth less than a dog or a mule.             

            I ran on the track team with black kids, sat in class with them, children of people  who had come north and west to work in the wartime shipyards.  I had no idea what they had gone through in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. Those things were not taught nor discussed where we lived in 1952. We have a national legacy of violence and racism that will not go away. It is part of who we are as a nation.  William Faulkner wrote in 1948 that unless we conquer the division that throttles America we will lose America. It is something that could be an editorial in today’s newspaper. John Steinbeck repeated Faulkner’s warning in 1968, having seen ugliness in New Orleans during his epic journey with his dog Charley.  Both books (Intruder in the Dust and Travels with Charley)  bear reading again.   

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He left Wales for America, crossing  the Atlantic. His own father-in-law had worked in the arsenic mines in Devon, digging out the toxic substance, loading it into wagons where it was pulled to the tiny village.  Today the building where the horses were kept is a pub.  The arsenic was loaded onto cars on the newly minted railroad, shipped off to become part of the industrial revolution. Born in England, he lived and mined in Wales, and Welsh hard rock miners were in demand, men who had spent their lives deep underground, knew how to pry wealth out of the earth, how to shore up the tunnels and set off explosions, follow a seam that would bring wealth to the owners of the mine.

            His name was on the ship’s manifest, along with those of his family. Was it a stormy crossing?  Were they in steerage with the other immigrants, jammed in with those who became seasick and vomited on the deck.? How long was that voyage? He landed in a foreign country where they spoke his language and he knew only one way to make a living:  go down into a hole in the ground, work from dark to dark, hacking out coal or iron ore. He paid for his own tools and his own lamp and the oil to fuel it. He bought the family’s supplies from a company store; New York where the five of them lived in a one-room jerry-built house,, the iron mines of Michigan until he ended up in the coal mines of Illinois. His  fourteen year old son worked with him in the mine.  They were a team, father digging out the coal, son loading it into the car that the pit pony pulled to the lift. 

            Once, when there was an explosion in a mine, he volunteered to lead men down to see if there were any survivors.,the lower drifts flooded with water and he went in that rising water up to his arm pits, shouting out names in the blackness until he could go no further.  He came back to the shaft where the lift no longer worked and they climbed out, up a rope that was knotted, more than a hundred feet Strength and will. 

            So what did he think? What did he say to the rest of his family?  We’re going to the New World?  We’ll pack up whatever we can carry with us and get on board a ship and go where there may be work, where there is another hole in the ground I can drop into and not see the sun again. Rise in the darkness, descend into the darkness, come out in the darkness, see your faces only by the light of candles or oil lamps. My brothers have gone off to Africa to seek the same thing. Africa, the land of lions and elephants and people whose skin was as black as the night.  They went to mine diamonds and gold but wrote to him not to follow. The world of those mines had crashed.  

            We will go to the New World, he said, the world that is opening up, a world where fortunes are made, and did he think one of those fortunes might be his?  A man who crawled into the earth and came out covered in the oily black dust that was hard to wash off, a man at the mercy of the ones who owned him?  What seemed like a witless choice was not.  It was not a choice. It was the road that lay before him.  There was no turning back. Two generations later his two grandsons did not go into the earth; one of them became a teacher and a carpenter, the other became a traveler, spent years in the wastes of the deserts of the middle east with an oil company. The granddaughter married and did not marry a man of the mines, did not find her kitchen smeared with coal dust on his return, moved to a big city where she wiped away the dust of the mines.

            And the children of my generation became teachers and scientists and keepers of the natural world and only viewed the slag heaps of their birthplace with surprise, as if they could not have come from such a place. 

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Ploughman’s lunch

 Ploughman’s lunch.  I have written about this before.  A chunk of Stilton cheese, a chunk of freshly baked bread, a thick heavy bread, and a dollop of Branston pickle, a salsa-like conception only found in England.  That and a pint of “best bitter,” what the pub calls its best beer. I had such a lunch in Wales.  Wendy Suffield knew a woman who knew a farmer who was willing to take me across his fields in an old Land Rover, depositing me at the stream where he said that the sea-run trout had not come up yet,

            ”You’ll not get much, lad,” he said, and left me to my own devices.  I cast across the welcoming water for four hours, did not raise a fish, but it was an exercise in good water and good weather and lovely fields and then I hiked across the fields  to the local pub where I had a Ploughman’s lunch            

            The farm workmen who were there saw my rod and reel and asked if I had done well, and I said, any day on a stream is a good day, and they all nodded, and said I should come back in another month. But of course I could not.

            I finished my Ploughman’s  lunch, had another beer and suddenly I was  alone in the pub.

            “You’re a Yank”, the publican said.


            “Is the fishing the same where you live?”

            “No, it’s quite different. The sea run trout are called steelhead and they run large. Usually you fish for them in weather that isn’t fit for fishing, rain  that comes in sideways and wind and it’s cold but the fish are running and if you have any luck you’ll hang into one and it will be an experience.”

            ` “Not too different from here,” he said.

            “Except I cannot get a ploughman’s lunch on the Russian River.”            

            “Aye,” he said  “That cheese comes from the farmer whose river you fished. His wife baked the bread.”

            I’ll remember that,” I said.  “ I didn’t raise a fish, but it was a good day. “ 

            “Yes,” he said.  “Any day on the river is a good day,” 

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Quincy was a pure bred schnauzer.  His name was Wolfgang but my son Graham changed that.  He became Quincy, a name from a Sierra town where Graham had often fished, Quincy was a miniature schnauzer who had an attitude; he went for big dogs with impunity, suffering nasty bites in return, but it didn’t daunt him, He maintained that attitude throughout his life with us, only settling into old age, his eyesight failing, his hearing dissipating, and he lashed out at anyone who approached him from the rear, unable to scent or hear their threat. Eventually he only tolerated me. I was the one who groomed him, securing his jaw with a belt, and he dissolved into old age.  When his legs gave out and I found him dragging himself over the floor, I took him to the vet.  

            ‘He won’t be any better for letting me stitch him together with drugs. He’s at his end,” he said.  “Do you want me to put him down?’

            ‘No,” I said, “this my responsibility,” and I took him out to the humane society where they would give him a  shot and end his pain. It was a sad moment for me. He sat on the floor next to me until the woman came to take him and a few minutes later she came out and said, “it’s done.”I went to my truck in the parking lot and cried.   

            We outlive our dogs. I am 85, and am not about to get another dog, since the dog would outlive me. So now my dogs are fictional, dogs that will not collapse on me, a dog that will last as long as the words last. They are story dogs, not real dogs not the kind that go out into the surf time and time again to fetch a tennis ball, returning to drop the ball at my feet. As a boy I read Alfred Payson Terhune’s  book, Real Tales of Real Dogs, stories about heroic dogs that dashed across battlefields with notes, and traveled hundreds of miles to reunite with their owners. Later this month I will dog sit Cooper, a bright little dog whose owners are off to ski at Lake Tahoe.  When I walk him in the morning he pauses every once in a while to look back at me. The expression is one of “What’s wrong? Why so slow?  You OK?”  Yes, Cooper I am OK.  I am an old dog.

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