Characters of The River Why by David James Duncan

The River Why is a story about a young man’s coming of age and searching for himself not as a member of his parents’ household, but as a man, occupying his own place in the world. When the book begins, Augustine “Gus” Orviston is obsessed with fishing. Everything he does has something to do with fishing and he plans on devoting his life to fishing. By the book’s end Gus is no longer obsessed with fishing. He has drunk a good deal of wine, done a lot of thinking about the non-fishing life and has gotten married.

He is prepared to lead a reasonably normal, although eccentric, lifestyle. Set in Oregon during 1974 Gus graduates from high school at the age of twenty. Gus has spent most of his available and some of his unavailable time fishing. Gus was preoccupied with fishing to the exclusion of everything else. When he read it was about fishing; this explains why he is twenty when he graduates instead of the usual eighteen. After his high school graduation Gus develops the “Ideal Schedule” that allows him fourteen and a half hours of fishing each day.

He immediately sets out to implement this schedule. By moving to a primitive cabin on a coastal river. Throughout this year Gus meets a variety of people who are instrumental in his journey to becoming an adult. Central among these are Bill Bob, his little brother, Titus a philosopher and horrible fisherman whose dog Descartes enjoys high tea (but only after grace has been said), and Eddy the free spirited young woman who becomes his wife.

Gus was an avid fisherman like both his father Henning Hale-Orviston “H2O” a pristine fly fisherman who catches and releases all of his fish to preserve fishing for future generations and his mother, Carolina “Ma” Carper who would use anything at hand to land and fish and would not have engaged in the process of “catch and release” for any reason whatsoever. He has inherited traits from both parents; he is an excellent fly fisherman, but does not hesitate to use other types of tackle and eats some of the fish he catches.

Bill Bob is not at all like either of his parents or his older brother. He has never fished, talked about fish, or read about fish. He has never been obsessed with a single thing because he is obsessed with everything except fishing. He does several things at once; he listens to two radio stations at once using a separate portable radio and earpiece for each station. Although only about ten years old, Bill Bob thinks about things and develops theories to explain this complicated universe. He views the world as a place to be experienced and engages in as many activities at the as possible.

Bill Bob arrives on July 4 to spend two weeks with his older brother. Bill Bob’s effect on Gus is that he helps Gus realize that there is more to life than fishing. Gus and Bill Bob take a hike up Tamanawis Mountain. As the brothers walk Bill Bob begins to explain his cosmology of “peoples who had a ring around their heads like the ring around Saturn, only this ring was their eyeball” (Duncan, 1983, p. 78). Bill Bob describes them as idiotic because although they can see everything, “there wasn’t a single connecting nerve to clear their brains in” (Duncan, 19, p. 78).

It appears that Bill Bob is speaking of his older brother Gus. Although Gus can “see” everything, it does not register unless it is connected with fishing. This affects Gus without him realizing it. As he walked he felt “the peacefulness and greenness of things. ” He saw and heard the things around him for the first time that summer, “the paintbrush and fireweed, raven calls and cricketsong, light on the meadows and wind in the trees. . . .” For the first time he felt “sort of happy” (Duncan, 1983, p. 79). He recognized that his world was disintegrating from too much fishing.

Bill Bob helped Gus start to see things in a different way, a way not of facts about fishing, but away about experiencing life intuitively. The change was gradual. When Gus later revisited Mountain Tamanawis he tried to look at where he lived, not as a fishing place, but as a river, a thing full of life with an identity of its own. When he did he say that the Tamanawis River’s course through the valley spelled out the word “why. ” It was recognition of that question so fundamental to philosophy that led Gus to the next level in his journey.

Titus guided Gus through a study of academic philosophy. Titus quotes Saint Augustine who said “man has no reason to philosophize, except with a view of happiness. ” Gus spent two complete days talking and listening to Titus. When he left Titus’ house he carried fourteen borrowed philosophy books so he could continue his studies. Over the weeks that followed more conversations followed. Gus’ life felt “more like a toy in the hands of Heaven and Earth than a tangle of tissue and glands in the hands of an idiot named Gus”(Duncan, 1983, p. 200).

He read voluminously from Shakespeare, Plato, Hindu, Buddhist, Islamic and Taoist mythology and scripture. He began to be more accepting of people and actually visited with them. He was well on his way to becoming a part of society. The last person to affect Gus was Eddy. Gus met Eddy while she was fishing from the top of an alder tree along the Siletz River. She was a beautiful, shapely, young woman and she fished! She fished in an unusual way, a way that had more in common with Bill Bob’s theories of the universe than with H2O’s pure fly fishing.

For the first time in his life Gus was interested in a woman and all that such interest entails. Naturally the first time Gus tried to talk to her he was tongue-tied and appeared to be an escapee from a mental institution. He realized “[n]othing would ever be the same” (Duncan, 1983, p. 160). In the course of one short year Gus has learned a great deal. His younger brother taught him to look at things in a different way. Titus taught him the value of reading and exploring ideas and thinking about something other than fishing.

Eddy taught Gus that sharing one’s life with another person had considerable advantages to living alone whether one was fishing, observing, reading, or doing most anything else. By the end of the book Gus has become a more rounded person. He no longer is limited by the blinders of fishing that had limited his vision and worldview for the first twenty years of his life. He has escaped from the opinions of his parents and learned to look at things with a different point of view. He has grown up and has the tools he will need to live his life, not as a fisherman, but as a man who fishes.