It’s no secret that when the stresses of life reach a breaking point, fishing is the one activity capable of returning us to a state of equilibrium.
If nothing else, Reuters journalist Eric M. Johnson’s debut novel, “Whenever a Happy Thing Falls” (Cloud Hands Press, March 2021), is a testament to that fact. While flyfishing isn’t the focus of the book, it’s the novel’s climactic steelheading scene—and the talk of fishing leading up to it—that make the read worthwhile.
Bale Ratcliffe is a recent college grad and 100-hour a week analyst at a Chicago investment bank. He’d rather pursue his interests in literature, poetry and a girl he loves, but his overbearing father and a massive income stream keep him at the job he hates. He becomes a workaholic in an environment where that is praised, even necessary. Drugs, alcohol and despair lead him toward rock bottom, but he finds solace at his family’s Michigan lake house and the nearby Rogue River.
Ratcliffe’s bosses are jerks and his co-workers insufferable racists, homophobes and misogynists. Scenes of endless workdays with them come across as both mundane and stressful. But perhaps that’s the point. Ratcliffe doesn’t like these characters any more than the reader does, and deep down, he wants out of that life.
It’d take a banker to tell if the banking scenes ring true, but the fishing scene does, and the anticipation and emotions leading up to and surrounding this part of the book certainly do.
Throughout much of the novel, it was hard to know whether to root for Ratcliffe or not. In a lot of ways, he seemed on a level with his coworkers. But as he and his one true friend, Sutton, make their way toward a pool “famous for holding the biggest steelhead ever landed in Michigan,” I found myself rooting hard for him.
They took their packs and rods and the flask and set off down a narrow tractor path toward the river.
Sutton saw the autumnal frost where it paralyzed the naked canopy and smelled the pine musk and hearth fires and heard the crunch and crack of gravel and snapping twigs under their boots. A young whitetail bounded from a creek bed. Mergansers lit out from a stagnant back eddy.
When Ratcliffe gets into his dad’s old waders and walks out into the icy river, the “mend, swing, strip, step” drowns out the stresses of the job and life back in Chicago. His heart quickens as he mistakes a snagged rock as the strike of a big fish, and the reader’s heart will quicken as well. It is the kind of moment when one forgets they are reading a book. That’s about all you can ask for in a fishing story.
Whenever a Happy Thing Falls
By Eric M. Johnson
Publication Date: March 2, 2021