“Why’s this so good?” No. 48: Burkhard Bilger noodles a catfish
The story I want to tell you about, “In the Monster’s Maw,” was published in 1997, and that’s important. Because in 1997, when Burkhard Bilger went out to Oklahoma for The Atlantic, to write about noodling for catfish, few people knew what noodling was. You probably do. You’ve seen it on YouTube: a guy is chest-deep in a muddy river trying to catch a catfish by grabbing it down the throat with his bare hands. But this was 1997 – 10 years before YouTube, and before noodlers started taking tourists out, and before reality television cooked up a show called Hillbilly Handfishin’. The point of telling you this is to say, in 1997 the bar for getting a story about noodling into a national magazine couldn’t have been that high. This was practically breaking news.
I wasn’t there, but I can imagine Bilger walking into the offices of The Atlantic and saying something like: So, the story is, there are these people in Oklahoma who catch catfish using nothing more than their bare hands. Their hands! They wiggle their fingers to attract the fish to attack and then, you aren’t gonna believe this, they jam their whole arm down its throat! These are monstrous fish, 100-pound fish, fish capable of drowning … Stop, Burk. Go, just get on the damn plane and go, before somebody else does.
And who knows, maybe that’s how Bilger did pitch it, as a story “about” an interesting American subculture. But I doubt it, because that’s not the story he ended up writing. This was an easy double, and Bilger hit a home run. And what he did to make it a home run, to make it so damn good, is something rather simple, something lots of us learn in our earliest reporting classes. I remember the day I learned it. My teacher came in and told us about his morning, about how for 45 minutes he had stared at a toothbrush … with his infant daughter. And he said: Do that. Watch the world the way a child does. Report and write stories as through a child’s eyes. Bilger, who now writes for the New Yorker, takes that idea and steps it up. He looks through his own child’s eyes.
We learn right away that Bilger is from Oklahoma, and his subject is a childhood classmate named Lee McFarlin, who Bilger remembers “cutting classes and tooling around in his ’62 Impala.” We see McFarlin as boyhood Bilger saw him, as his opposite:
While Lee was trapping muskrats and skinning wild pigs, I learned about the American wilderness by reading James Fenimore Cooper in German.
And the dark, Gothic wilderness Bilger found in Cooper’s books was reinforced at home:
“The bones of drowned boys,” my mother was fond of saying, “lie at the bottom of every farm pond.”
Bilger frames his story inside a day on the lake noodling with McFarlin, but pretty quickly you can tell this story is less a profile of Lee than it is one of the fish, or rather, of the idea of the fish, and of Bilger’s relationship it. Bilger quotes from 17th-century explorers who called the fish a “demon,” and Twain, who claimed he once saw one that outweighed him. Pioneer mothers, Bilger writes, told the same stories his mother told him when he was a boy:
They were the stuff of nightmares then – the troll under the bridge, the thing at the bottom of the well.
And knowing all this, when we see Bilger sitting on the pier – watching McFarlin shoulder deep in the murky water, face turned upward, arm thrust downward, searching, as he tells us, “I can feel the reverberations of the old panic”—we understand that it’s boyhood Bilger sitting on that pier.
That terror has narrative power. It carries us through the day, through the noodling scenes, as well as through the exposition about the history of noodling, the exceptional patience required, the technical challenges involved, the harrowing anecdotes the sport produces, and eventually through the scene in which Bilger, at last, finds himself elbow-deep in the monster’s maw.
Once Bilger wrestles the beast onto the boat, the story shifts. The monster, Bilger writes, “looks sadly diminished: prostrate on the desk, mouth working to get air, skin as soft and pale as dough.” One of McFarlin’s kids pokes the fish with his toe. I imagine Bilger frowning as he writes:
Just another monster done in by the daylight.
And that might have been the end of it. That’s a story, right? It has a beginning, a middle, an end. It shows us a character encountering a challenge and finding himself changed by it. Fish-fearing boyhood Bilger becomes fish-trapping manhood Bilger. Catfish the monster becomes catfish the mere fish. That would have been a good enough ending, I’d say.
But that’s not how Bilger ends it. And that’s what makes this story great. It’s worth re-reading the whole last paragraph:
That night, when I come home from the lake, my son pads down the hall to greet me. He’s been hearing bedtime stories about catfish all week – stories not so different, I’ll admit, from my mom’s macabre tales. Now he looks up with anxious eyes as I tell him about my day. And I feel a twinge of recognition, watching his face contort with the effort of imaginging. The troll, I think, has found a new haunt.
Ah, it’s just such a damn smart ending, isn’t it? I don’t even want to say much about it, because I think you see it. So I’ll just say two things: Most of my favorite essays – and this is an essay as much as it’s a piece of reporting and a story – have these fake-out endings. You think it’s over, but then, the writer hits you with a chapter, a scene or just a paragraph that upends the fake ending and takes you someplace deeper. And second: So much of this story is seen through boyhood Bilger, and when he grows up a little (at least when it comes to the catfish), I feel sad. Who wants a story with a sad ending? This one is romantic and beautiful, and yet so deeply true: Look, the myth isn’t dead! It’s just migrated. Myths don’t die unless we kill them.
So what makes this so good?
I take three things away from it:
(1) Take that idea that as reporters we’re supposed to look at the world with the wonder and attentiveness of a child and fold it into yourself. Consider how the story you’re reporting connects to your own childhood ideas, dreams and fears. Maybe it doesn’t. But if it does, mine that. Write it. See where it takes you.
(2) Even if you have a great story idea nobody else has touched yet, force yourself to do the hard thinking required to say something really interesting and new about it. Imagine you’re the 10th person to write that about that person or place, not the first.
(3) Before you send your story in to your editor, look at the ending again. Is it complicated and deep and new? Or is it predictable? If it’s predictable, is there an image, a scene, a piece of dialogue, that might push it around a little, contradict it, blur it, twist it, flip it halfway on its head?
Pat Walters is a staff producer for NPR’s Radiolab. His print writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Popular Science and Discover, among others, and he is a contributor to Pop Up Magazine, a live event. He lives in New York.
*This piece appeared on June 26 and July 3 due to site development glitches on the original publishing date.