Folks and fish on the mythic Mississippi

Up on the River, by John Madson. New York: Nick Lyons/Schocken Books. 288 pp. $17.95. It is, wrote Mark Twain in ``Huckleberry Finn,'' a ``monstrous big river.'' True enough. But the Mississippi has become larger and larger, thanks to Twain: Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and various riverboat captains have told enough people river stories for that river to become as mythic as it is real.

John Madson is fully aware of this, but once he makes clear that he embraces the river's mythic attributes and claims that ``the Great River embodies all our follies, fancies, and glories,'' he gets down to the business of showing us his Mississippi. Madson's Mississippi is the Upper River, the stretch between St. Louis and St. Paul. The people he introduces us to -- George (Three-Finger) Kaufman, game warden; Joe Martelle, commercial fisherman and river rat; Eldon (Guttenberg Mike) Vorwald, riverboat captain; and many, many others -- seem as essential to this river world as catfish and barges.

The manner here is stringently anecdotal, and each chapter will have numerous tributaries -- everything is connected, it seems. Take Chapter 2, for example, the one titled ``Shell Game.''

It begins with Madson buying breakfast for his friend Joe Martelle. They go out to the river to do some shelling, then follows a discussion of the gem pearls in river mussels, after which comes a discussion of the pearl-button industry that once boomed in Muscatine, Iowa, then some information about river mussels, then on to the practice of diving for shells and, finally, to talk about the endangered Higgin's eye mussel.

Madson, mentioning a letter in a newspaper that asked what good such things as Higgin's eye mussels were, is moved to respond: ``What is modern man good for? Of all earth's creatures he is unique in not being good for anything. . . . The sad truth is, our lovely little planet can no longer afford us. We are Earth's only bad habit.''

Yet for all this, ``Up on the River'' has no elegiac ecologist cast to it. Sure, Madson wishes we hadn't abused the Mississippi, but he is too caught up in the pleasures of the river to harp on the subject.

Madson spins his stories all in a (consciously) folksy prose in which he and the river are center stage. He collects anecdotes the way the Mississippi collects silt, and in their accumulation the former are nearly as rich as the latter.

James Kaufmann reviews books regularly for the Monitor.

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