Picks and Pans Review: The Riverkeeper

updated 09/30/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/30/1991 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Alec Wilkinson

Wilkinson's fascination with low-tech, high-sweat ways of life has produced books that richly document the humor and dignity that persist in even the most thankless jobs.

Where his earlier works (Moonshine, Big Sugar) have generally had a single focus, the three essays that make up The Riverkeeper are all commentaries on how society interacts with the watery ecosystems it has inherited.

"The Blessing of the Fleet" focuses on a celebration of the predominantly Portuguese fishing fleet in Provincetown, Mass.; "The Uncommitted Crime" is a meditation on the complex relationship among Alaska's Tlingit Indians of Admiralty Island, the American government and the sea; the title piece, perhaps the best of the three, is a profile of John Cronin, an environmental activist who is the salaried guardian of New York's Hudson River.

In each essay, what Wilkinson, a New Yorker staff writer, does best is transform details of precarious livelihoods into vivid images of people.

For example, Wilkinson relates an exchange between a father and a complaining son. After nearly 38 days of fishing night and day, the son knows only that when fish prices go down he will rest. When the prices do fall, however, his father says, "Now we need to catch twice as many."

In all, the book's eclectic essays are true to Wilkinson's penchant for the unsung. (Knopf, $20)

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