Montana State University

Keeler keeps it reel with new book about life, fishing

September 24, 2008 -- By Carol Schmidt, MSU News Service


MSU English professor Greg Keeler says that fishing has been the constant in the six decades of his life. Keeler's new book, "Trash Fish: A Life," is added to a long list of poetry, essays, songs, plays, CDs and performances. MSU photo by Kelly Gorham.    High-Res Available

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In a land where the wild trout is nearly sacred, it takes some courage to put a photo of a big, fat sucker on the cover of your latest book.

But that's exactly what Montana State University English professor Greg Keeler has done with "Trash Fish: A Life" published this month by Counterpoint Press.

The fish, which Keeler once caught near Trident, sports a huge tear that Keeler swears wasn't Photoshopped. It is, on one level, a clue that the book is a fish story like no other you've heard before. It is vintage Keeler, MSU's troubadour of all trades, who can be counted upon to hook readers with his wit and reel them in with irreverent observations in his essays, poems, songs, plays and performances.

But on another level, the sucker is a reflection of Keeler's unflinching honesty as he turns his own unblinking, if teary eye, to an unexpected subject -- himself.

Keeler makes it clear that he admires those most humble of fish, whom he calls his totem animal. In fact, he has even eaten those "balloons of questionable meat" during a lifetime of passionate fishing. He has written a poem, "Ode to Rough Fish," that is included in the book, as is a chapter on fishing for the primordial paddlefish of Eastern Montana.

Keeler, who said he has been crazy about fishing since he was a toddler, points out that it isn't the beauty of a fish that is noble. What is eternal is the fishing itself and the link to the unconscious -- the casting of line into dark waters and with repetition, determination, and a good measure of luck, hooking onto magic.

Fishing provides the spine of the book, from Keeler's first memories whiplashed to a small rowboat while his English professor father fished in Long Lake, Minn., to fishing with his family in Oklahoma as well as fishing with some of the country's most famous literary personalities, including Richard Brautigan, Gary Snyder and Richard Hugo. Yet, Keeler said, this is not just a fishing book.

"It's a book about relationships," Keeler said. "Ultimately, it's a love story."

Just as it's not an orthodox fishing book, it is also not like any love story you've ever read, unless the love story involves a muddled middle-aged crisis that is destructive to all involved.

"The protagonist in the book is not a hero," said Keeler. And it's not giving anything away to say that the protagonist in the memoir is Keeler. "If anything, the women in the book are the heroes.... It's more about how I screw up."

In fact, Keeler is so honest about his actions during several periods of his life that his publisher asked Keeler if he really wanted his story out in the world. Keeler said as a writer he had a responsibility to be as honest as he could. He said he showed the manuscript to his wife, former MSU adjunct English professor Judy Keeler, whom Keeler calls the true hero of the book, and she gave him a green light. In the book Keeler writes candidly about the destruction of the couple's long-time marriage and their remarriage five years later.

Keeler said he wrote the book while he was on a sabbatical from MSU in 2004 while writing a book of sonnets. He first submitted the book that became "Trash Fish" to another publisher, and that publisher sent it to Counterpoint, based in Berkeley, Calif. Counterpoint's imprints include Soft Skull Press and Sierra Club Books.

Counterpoint initially rejected the book. Keeler said he pondered the rejection for about a year before he changed the point of view, added some chapters and resubmitted it.

While this is his first book to be published by a major press, Keeler has published three previous books, including a memoir of his relationship with Brautigan published by smaller Limberlost Press, as well as three books and three chapbooks of poetry. He has also produced six plays, 10 tapes and CDs of his satirical songs, and has published many articles in popular and academic magazines and journals. Keeler recently took up painting, and his works are exhibited in the Bozeman area. Last year, the MSU College of Letters and Science named Keeler one of its first two distinguished professors and in 2001 he received the Montana Governor's Award in the Humanities.

"I can't think of anything I made up," Keeler said of his story, which he said sometimes can be "raw." "It's definitely from my perspective."

Keeler will read from "Trash Fish" at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 30, at Bozeman's Country Bookshelf.
To learn more about Keeler's work, go to http://www.troutball.com/

Greg Keeler (406) 994-5188, gkeeler@english.montana.edu