Looking Through Water
By Bob Rich
196 pages, $24.99
By Bruce Andriatch
Peter B. Taub was a columnist for the former Times-Union in Rochester who was known for pointing out “names that work.” He would notice a nurse named Barbara Healing or a cop named Tom Law and include them in his column.
I always think of that when I see the name Bob Rich, because with a 10-digit net worth, the longtime Buffalo Bisons owner and chairman of Rich Products – the eponymous Buffalo business started by his father – sure is.
Turns out “Bob Writes” would have worked too, because his first piece of fiction, “Looking Through Water,” shows that he’s pretty good at it.
It’s not widely known that Rich already has authored four other books in the past 10 years. When he was CEO of Rich Products, he didn’t have as much time to satisfy his craving to be a storyteller, but since he turned over the reins in 2006, he has had that flexibility.
His earlier efforts were nonfiction, but in an interview with The News earlier this year, he said: “I was always looking forward to doing a novel where I could throw off the confines of fact and really go to fiction.”
“Looking Through Water” gave him the chance to do that while exploring two passions: writing and fishing.
It’s the story of a man named William McKay who is struggling with an almost nonexistent relationship with the father who abandoned him and who uses a long-ago episode from that relationship to connect with his grandson so that he might reach the boy the way his own grandfather influenced him.
Trying to figure out where a person’s actual experience ends and a fictionalized story begins is fraught with peril. In the case of a public person, that might be even more true. Rich dedicated the book to his own grandfather and then wrote this in an introduction: “A loving and thoughtful grandparent can change a child’s life. If you have been blessed to have a grandchild, you have an obligation to become such a grandparent. This story is about just such a person.”
Abandonment, dysfunction and a longing for secure relationships are recurring themes in the book, as is incredible wealth.
You’ll have to judge for yourself what it all means, if anything.
Water is the tie that binds everything in this novel, whether it’s a lake in the Adirondacks or the Florida Keys, and learning lessons about life and family while trying to catch a fish is the connective tissue.
The lion’s share of the story is a flashback to 1976, a story that McKay is telling in the present to his grandson, Kyle, to help him understand why his own parents divorced and his own father left him and more broadly, why his family is the way it is.
It starts with Kyle asking William about a scar on his forehead, to which William responds: “That’s a long and probably inappropriate story.”
And we’re off to the bicentennial year.
It’s a time when McKay is a successful Wall Streeter but is surrounded by difficult relationships. After a publicly drunken episode ends with near death from an accidentally self-inflicted gunshot to the head – hence the scar – McKay is shocked to hear from his father, Leo, who has been a ghost in most of his adult life but now wants him to fly to Florida to take part in a fishing competition.
He obliges and ends up in Islamorada – where Rich actually lives – hauling around an ancient “mobile phone,” wearing the tuxedo he had on in New York City the night before and finds himself treated by the locals like the city slicker he is. (Did someone say “fish out of water”?)
For about 100 pages, McKay struggles to reconnect with his father through a competition to catch different types of fish, all the while battling with his father’s mysterious fishing companion, Cole, and trying to connect romantically with a young doctor named Jenny.
Rich the writer needs some work with foreshadowing; the big “reveals” as the story goes along can be seen coming from a nautical mile away. And to truly enjoy the book also calls for a love of fishing that borders on fanaticism as Rich weaves in details that will make non-anglers looking for the spot on the next page to skip ahead to without missing something.
But for a relatively short book, the characters are fully formed, their decisions and motivations understandable and believable. The dialogue occasionally comes off as too perfect, but most of it feels true, which is high praise for anyone attempting fiction.
Rich is not exactly a man with a lot of free time on his hands. But his first stab at being a novelist demonstrates that he should continue to find the time to dip his hook into that pond.
Bruce Andriatch is the assistant managing editor/Features for The Buffalo News.