The fish whisperer

Jun 25, 2008 at 12:00 am

"What does a man whisper when he whispers to fish?" Detroit-based writer Peter Markus asks this question in his first novel, Bob, or Man on Boat (Dzanc Books, $13.95, 133 pp.). He answers the question with a collage of secret dialogues and minimalist dreams.

In short sentences built of small words, Markus has created a book that's as fluid as a river, yet solid as a stone. A man, Bob, finds a mystical connection with nature and his own fate through telling stories about his fisherman-father, who's also called Bob. The narrator thinks obsessively about the fisherman. He even thinks about the fisherman while he's thinking about other things. In the same way that the fish are the atomic structure of everything in the universe to the fisherman, so the fisherman is the entire universe to the narrator.

The narrator is a son, a husband, and a father himself. He buys a boat that belonged to a drowned man because he dreams of being like his father — the aloof, unreachable fisherman who has become so intertwined with the river that he's more like a pagan god than a person.

In a plot that doesn't really move, but rocks on the water of Markus' deep and murky imagination, a small cast of characters lives and dies through a series of transactions with the river. The river takes people and gives them back to the land. Sometimes they're alive and sometimes they're dead. The river is a life-giving burial ground, a paradoxical place of lucidity and mud. The fisherman, Bob, is the minister of the river.

Instead of movement, Markus's book offers transformations. A man is a fish, the fish are stars, and a man is mud. Where one might expect the chattering biographical gossip found in most fiction, he gives a story that constantly peers into an abyss. It squints, gazes, and every now and then, stops to rub its eyes.

Newly released on the Michigan-based independent Dzanc Books, Bob, or Man on Boat follows Markus' collections of short fiction: Good, Brother; The Moon is a Lighthouse; and The Singing Fish. The new novel uses the same sparse, poetic, almost primitive style that distinguishes much of Markus' earlier work. But, for the first time, it demonstrates his ability to prolong the dream, and to sustain the mythic song till the last note is sung. —Norene Cashen

Kristin Palm reads from her new book of poems The Strait, John Rybicki reads from his new book of poems, We Bed Down into Water and Peter Markus reads from Bob, or Man on Boat at 7 p.m. on Thursday, July 26, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (4454 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-832-6622). Markus also reads on Friday, July 27 at the Plymouth Book Cellar & Café (840 W. Ann Arbor Trail, Plymouth; 734-455-2665).