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Bonefish dreams

Inside Chris Dombrowski's elusive Body of Water

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The book is called Body of Water: A Sage, a Seeker, and the World's Most Alluring Fish (Milkweed, 2016). Its author is poet and Montana fishing guide Chris Dombrowski. And this, well, this is the only paragraph in this review that will be easy to write, since Dombrowski's first nonfiction book has a quality that is nearly as elusive as the iconic bonefish, the fly fisherman's "alluring" quarry referred to in the subtitle.

The book reviewer's first job is to say what a book is about, but I can't make myself do that yet. What I want to tell you is that most of Body of Water is set in the Bahamas and that the book is about more than bonefishing. You'll visit the delicate mangrove-rooted ecology of the Bahamian sand flats. You'll learn about a tourist economy that helped create what a man in the book bluntly labels "apartheid," as well as the cataracts old Caribbean fishing guides are gifted with (from staring at the water) almost as reliably as other retiring professionals get gold watches. You'll meet a wise old man and a younger man hungry for wisdom. You'll ponder the chemistry of blue holes—those magical water-filled caves that permeate the limestone bones of some tropical islands—and also of dreams.

I can also tell you this: Much like water or poetry—or, come to think of it, fly fishing—this is a book that, more than most, reflects what you bring to it. Share any of its author's fascinations and Body of Water is likely to become a favorite. Listing those fascinations is tough—since they are many and being passionate may be Dombrowski's truest passion—but among them are water, fly fishing, the ravishing scent of a perfect phrase in perfect bloom, the human mind ennobled by its attempts to reconcile the unknowable.

Because of my passion for good writing, what struck me about this book was the skill and originality of its craftsmanship. Body of Water is not structured logically, but rather as certain dreams are—the ones you wake up needing to tell someone. There are elegantly plain vignettes in which people simply go about their lives. These are interwoven with stories and musings from Dombrowski's own life and contemplative sketches of the natural world, all of it leavened with science, history and literature. The result is a sweet, slow, contemplative read.

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Especially when he renders the natural world, it sometimes feels as though Dombrowski has put a telescope to my eye and brought the past or future or another place into this one. Nothing, he seems to say, is disconnected. I found myself reading such passages again and again, out of necessity—I couldn't take them in at first read—and then for pleasure. Here's one:

Always the tide: two low, two high each day. Rising tide climbs into flood, which flushes into high, when the moon above is at its zenith, or passing underfoot at its nadir; then falling tide recedes into ebb, which bellies out to low, before the heavy pause that is slack tide, before the moon begins to tug again, a distant rock stirring water that stirs sand that once was rock.

As fun as peering through Dombrowski's telescope, though, is listening to him as a first-person narrator. His perceptions seem so deeply felt that sometimes they're painful to read, as if the man has no skin. Here's what that can sound like: "Once, at sunset, trying to comprehend the bonefish's feeding habits, I slipped into shallows that scarcely cover my back, closed my eyes, and began to plumb the flat with my lips. How soft the earth's kiss, I thought..."

Which brings me to my primary criticism of the book. Dombrowski's most compelling quality as a narrator, beyond naked honesty, is the generosity with which he views everyone he meets. Everyone, that is, except himself. That ungenerosity created a nagging doubt I would rather have been free of, and ironically it's the exact doubt I would have had if he were an arrogant narrator: I questioned how far to trust this narrator's assumptions.

According to Dombrowski, David Pinder, the "sage" of the subtitle, an old bonefishing guide in touch and at peace with his world, believes that attentiveness to the task at hand and to your surroundings leads to appreciation, then gratitude, then reverence. Near the end of the book, knee-deep in warm ocean water, Dombrowski imagines a further journey for himself, one in which "reverence leads to mystery, which wends toward a deepening of our precious but treacherous relationship with Earth, this palace of ordinary people."

And that, it seems to me, is what Body of Water is really about: Chris Dombrowski's attempt to deepen his relationship with "this palace of ordinary people" by trying to understand one small, precious blue piece of a big blue planet.

The Montana Book Festival hosts a book party for Chris Dombrowski at Montgomery Distillery Wed., Sept. 21, 6:30-8:30 PM.

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