Book Review: Body of Water by Chris Dombrowski
When sidled up at a bar listening to a fish story, more often than not, the listener learns more about the fisherman than the fish. Which is certainly true of Chris Dombrowski’s debut nonfiction work, which employs the subject of bonefish—a shallow-living creature known for their bursts of speed—as an entry point into a much larger story, one that includes Dombrowski himself.
After a dozen years serving as a fly-fishing guide, Dombrowski—a husband, father, and poet—receives a much-needed all-expenses paid trip to Grand Bahama Island to partake in a bonefishing expedition. It couldn’t have come at a better time. Cash-strapped, anxiety-ridden, and with a second child on the way, Dombrowski’s good fortune seems the perfect salve for his struggles. Rather than rely on more conventional means of support, Dombrowski notes that he “trusted only water’s treatments.” It’s the water that will save him, he believes, though as he soon learns, bonefishing is no relaxing cast into a neighborhood duck pond. Instead, it’s an intricate procedure with little room for error, the fish itself having achieved “sport fish-royalty status due largely to its fickle manner and unsurpassed acceleration.” It is a ghost creature, and one “built for departure.”
Yet bonefishing is only one strand of Dombrowski’s wider story, the disturbance that allows his tale to ripple outward. Soon, the book veers toward the human side of things; notably, David Pinder, a “shore-foraging boy turned rock lugger” who, over several decades, rose to become “the head guide and cornerstone of one of the world’s most fabled sporting lodges.” He’s the man credited with building the Bahamas’ bonefishing industry, which today brings in over a billion dollars each year. Pinder, who spent most of his life exploiting the fish that made him famous, was himself exploited by the industry he helped to create. Over the years his money has dried up, as has his health. When a cyst the size of a “salad plate” is discovered in Pinder’s skull, surgery saves him, but cataracts leave him all but blind. Suddenly the man who was famous for spotting bonefish in the deep can no longer see what’s directly in front of him. In some ways it seems an updated version of Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a cautionary tale, though this time, even more pointedly focused on the exploitation of the environment.
But rarely do cautionary tales dazzle like this. It’s a credit to Dombrowski’s prose, which torques and twists and glistens into view much like the bonefish itself. One can’t help but hear echoes of Dombrowski’s teacher and friend, James Galvin, whose prose is often rooted in the earth. Yet Dombrowski’s writing also echoes the sea: powerful, unrelenting, and controlled. “If there is a greater pleasure in angling than stalking bonefish barefoot across an urchin-less sand flat, I have not encountered it,” he writes. Readers can’t help but marvel at the sentence, which so skillfully delays its subject until the crescendo of the final clause. Though Dombrowski regularly frontloads his sentences with images, in other instances he tries another tact, such as when he describes an encounter with his prey: “Dithering, the fish stares squarely at the fly, but before the man can play puppeteer again, it pivots its body to inhale.” This time, it’s the accumulation of clauses that reels us in, one reel after another until we’re gloriously hooked.
It’s true: few readers dream about curling up with a book about bonefish. But that’s not what this book is about. This is a book about seeking that which we cannot see, of understanding a place and its people not nearly as foreign as we might imagine. It’s a book about what connects us, and a book about disconnection, too. Though most importantly, it’s a meditation, not only on the ebb and flow of our lives, but on the lives with which we share this planet.
By book’s end, Dombrowksi leaves readers with many lessons, though this one most of all: whether on a skiff or in a book, the guide matters. And Dombrowski’s the one you want.
B.J. Hollars is the author of several books, most recently From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test. In February, Flock Together: A Love Affair With Extinct Birds will be published by the University of Nebraska Press.