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JULY 19, 1999: 

Home Waters: Fishing with an Old Friend by Joseph Monninger (Chronicle Books), hardcover, $22.95

Y'know, I'm going to make a vow to never again read the blurbs on book jackets. Before I'd even started reading, the plot had been given away, the mood had been set, the intention spread open ahead of me. It was like a pre-fab date, where everything had been set up for a passionate night, and all that was needed was a warm body.

Not only was starting Home Waters with all that info a disservice to me as a reader with a brain, but it was also a disservice to this book with a brain -- and a heart.

Home Waters: Fishing with an Old Friend is so much more than a man-and-his-dying-dog-go-on-a-fishing-trip memoir. Joseph Monninger is a teacher, and I'd guess he's a good one because he sees things. He notices qualities. He develops relationships. And he can see and accept in himself those frailties that make him human (as opposed to Superman, Tycoon, Peter Pan, Sugar Daddy, or Macho vs. Sensitive Man).

In this, his first memoir, Monninger not only takes his faithful companion, his dog Nellie, on an extended fishing trip after she survives a cancer scare, but he also takes himself through an honest, self-reflective journey, wherein he explores his present, his past and the real, painful possibility of living without the truest friendship he's ever had. The tone Monninger employs is honest, but not sensational. He's not auditioning for Jerry Springer. Instead, he refers to experiences that have shaped him without laying blame or looking for excuses. The episodes that are developed more fully are those that reveal the author's approach to life and, at the same time, create a relationship with the reader. For example, even if fly fishing isn't your thing, the affinity with nature and the act of focusing one's mind on a passion are feelings to which all of us can relate.

-- San Juanita Garza

Paris Trance by Geoff Dyer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), hardcover, $23

Four young people meet in Paris, have a hell of a good time, form two couples by falling in love, and proceed to indulge themselves in a never-ending stream of pleasures until one day everything fizzles down to a whimpering end.

The story is at its most engaging in the very beginning when the two British men, who are friends, meet the two women, one a Yugoslav and the other a Brit. All the early uncertainties and trepidations surrounding the blossoming of attractions are skillfully depicted. It is during this period that the four are at their most vulnerable and perhaps most likable. Luke, for example, carefully constructs a scenario in which he can "accidentally" meet Nicole, whom he's been eyeing for awhile. His mind plays all the usual frustrating guessing games, wondering how the object of his desire feels toward him. Alex, on the other hand, is less inventive and far less confident in his attempts to approach Sahra, his fellow expatriate. Geoff Dyer successfully draws a tight little line of support and empathy connecting the reader to these two faltering and all-too-human guys. Who cannot relate?

Once relationships have been established and the playing field becomes level, the story reaches a plateau of sameness and repetition from which, sadly, it never rises. The characters lose whatever individuality they had. Nicole and Sahra, who didn't have much to begin with, turn into cardboard figures mechanically mouthing words and performing everyday acts. Their conversations are steeped in schoolgirlishness. A fast-paced, perpetual motion of fun times and self-indulgences, ranging from living in dilapidated country homes to taking ecstasy, is told at such a dizzying pace that the reader sees nothing but a blur. This young British writer does take his time, however, in proudly describing the sexual prowess of Luke and Nicole.

Hemingway referred to Paris as a moveable feast. Indeed, to have lived in it is to always carry the experience with you. In Geoff Dyer's novel, it's only another tough, grimy city, without beauty or charm. Putting the name of the city in the title was simply an eye-catching gimmick.

-- Ann Peterpaul

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