Fishing Is a Tangled Line of Work for Pat Mcmanus, Chronicler of Life in the Not-So-Great Outdoors

updated 02/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/22/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

In a restaurant in Sandpoint, Idaho, a ruddy man with crow's feet at the corners of his eyes and battered Wallabees on his feet settles down to his favorite pastime: storytelling. Pat McManus' chestnut tonight is about the time he and his old buddy Vern Schulze went deer hunting. "As usual," McManus begins, adjusting his bifocals, "Vern takes us to his favorite spot, where there are never any deer. This time I ask him, 'Vern, how come you come up here when there are never any deer?' He says, 'Because there aren't any other hunters around.' "

It so happens that the selfsame Vern, beaming with delight, is one of McManus' dinner partners this evening. Sure, he has heard the story before, but McManus, 54, has a way of making it sound fresh and funny every time out.

Vern has plenty of company when it comes to appreciating his old friend and classmate (Sandpoint High, '52). McManus' collections of humorous stories about the purported pleasures of outdoor life have sold more than a million copies since 1978. In six books—with whimsical titles like They Shoot Canoes, Don't They? and Never Sniff a Gift Fish—McManus spins a series of semiautobiographical yarns about man's blundering attempts to bring Mother Nature into submission. In a style that brings to mind Mark Twain, Art Buchwald and Garrison Keillor, McManus recounts the fly-casting fiascoes he has shared with his semifictitious sidekicks, Retch Sweeney, Homer Pidgin and Rancid Crabtree. Setting out to go goose hunting, they have been known to get sidetracked by stacks of French toast at Greasy Gert's Gas and Grub Truck Stop. "What really matters in the outdoors," McManus says, "is the gestalt of the thing—driving there, spilling coffee in your lap, getting rained on. The worse it is, the better it is to remember."

McManus' latest entry into the field-and-scream genre, Rubber Legs and White Tail-Hairs, is his second bestseller. On a recent book tour, adoring fans around Kalispell, Wash., and Enterprise, Ore., arrived bearing gifts for their favorite author. "Tasteful stuff," says McManus of the organically grown peanuts and the ashtrays made from molded grizzly bear tracks. McManus also receives hundreds of letters inviting him on fishing or hunting expeditions in spite of the fact that his bad luck as an outdoorsman has reached, by his reckoning, "almost legendary proportions."

Yet beneath the bumbling country-chump image runs a dark vein of cynicism as deep as those rivers where McManus never hooks any fish. "I hate all forms of emotion," he says, "and I'm forever surprised at the emotional involvement people bring to my books." Surprised maybe, but he does understand. "One thing I've learned about humor is that it's never quite so funny as when your situation is almost hopeless," he says. "The very fact that life turns out badly cancels the significance of anything anybody does. You're dealing with an absurdity, and the humor arises out of the absurdity."

Perhaps this gloom at the core can be traced back to McManus' childhood. His father, Frank, a sawmill worker, was mustard-gassed in World War I and died of cancer when Pat was 6. Pat's mother, Mabel, scraped together enough money teaching to buy a house in Sandpoint for him and his older sister, Patricia. When it burned down eight years later, she built another one on the same property.

Growing up, McManus read all the Mark Twain he could and eventually earned enough money installing power lines to pay his own tuition at Washington State. In his sophomore year he married Darlene Keough, his hometown sweetheart. While they raised four daughters, all now grown, McManus became an English and journalism professor at Eastern Washington University in Cheney. He supplemented his income by writing freelance magazine articles and on a whim sent a nonsensical tale narrated by a deer to Field and Stream in 1968. To his amazement, he received a check for $300 and realized he had heard the call of the wild.

By 1977 McManus was a regular columnist for the magazine. The following year, at his editor's suggestion, he collected his columns into a book, A Fine and Pleasant Misery. Five years and three volumes later, McManus retired from teaching. Since then, he has devoted three hours a day to writing, working in the basement of the family's unpretentious three-story town house in Spokane. Darlene works at an adjacent desk, filling mail orders for Pat's books. They buy the books wholesale and distribute them at retail prices, thus augmenting Patrick's take as author. As a result of this practice, the McManuses earned an extra $30,000 in 1987.

Though McManus these days reels in more bucks than bass, he has no intention of chucking his down vests or Ford pickup, part of the woodsy persona he markets so skillfully. His "The Last Laugh" column is now a monthly feature for Outdoor Life magazine; he and his sister have compiled a collection of their relatives' old logging-camp recipes and turned them into The Troll's Cookbook, due out next fall, and he is working on a non-fiction account of a transcontinental auto race. McManus' latest idea is to take Darlene "fishing around the world in 80 days." Naturally, he'll write about that too and will no doubt present himself as the same easygoing tumbler readers have come to love. "You know," he muses, "my friends say I'm pretty much the way I seem in my books...laid-back, that kind of thing. But I see myself as more of a harried executive."

—Written by Andrea Chambers, reported by Meg Grant

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