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With the Boys: Field Notes on Being a Guy

by Jake MacDonald

In the first pages of his second man-in-nature memoir, Jake MacDonald invokes the manliest muse, Ernest Hemingway, lamenting that all hunting and fishing books end up being compared to the work of Papa. With such an introduction, MacDonald pretty well begs his reader to make the comparison. Luckily for MacDonald, he comes out all right in the ring with the most famous literary fighter. Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory – that the full weight of a story should be palpable while telling only one-eighth of what actually happened – is defended once again in With the Boys.

Whether it’s the tale of how he came to fall in love with a hound named Luke or his quest to catch bonefish with his pal Paul Quarrington, MacDonald paints a scene in a few well-chosen strokes: the scent of the air at dawn; a muddy article of clothing; a sarcastic line of dialogue between old friends. One essay opens with, “It’s a warm summer day on the Barren Lands, and I’m sitting alone in the cockpit of a $1 million French A-Star helicopter.” In another, his dad’s friend is introduced with, “He was a good shot, and he flew his own plane.” What more do you need to know about the man than that?

While the book’s spirit is rooted in relationships between men, so much of the actual material centres around fishing that the book could have been called Fishing with the Boys or just With the Fishes. MacDonald has the tendency to slip into describing overly technical aspects of the sport, which may be fascinating for drunk and weary anglers after a long day on the boat, but is out of place in this memoir. While these passages are tiring for someone who never plans to catch a catfish in Winnipeg’s Assiniboine River, they’re easy to forgive when you come to one of more than dozens of dry-witted gems of wisdom in the book.

“In nature, there’s a general sense of portent,” MacDonald writes. “It’s not likely that the river will reveal something. But if it happens, you’ll be there.” Today’s guy may have found his new Lao Tzu, one whose patient love of nature and human connection will surely save him from the same fate as his hero.