Prepare for the kind of laugh that starts deep in your belly and lingers on the lips, distilling into residual chuckles that punctuate the silence of your armchair. Patrick McManus' new collection of essays, The Bear in the Attic, is that kind of book. McManus' humor is inspired by the forests and streams of his native Idaho, a world in which hunting and fishing are the sports of gods, and one doesn't look for finer entertainment anywhere else. Much of the author's wit derives from his mythic lack of success at these recreations. He bags so few deer that his hunting friends are convinced his presence on a hunt is bad luck. McManus also updates old hunting and fishing jokes lying about the size of your fish; the ways in which the old, sage hunter gets the neophyte to do all the work under the guise of teaching him; and the neophyte's hunt for the mythical sasquatch. But the old pro is at his best when he is spinning long, elaborate yarns with sophisticated twists that require the reader to follow carefully and put two and two together to get five or six. His title story, The Bear in the Attic, starts out with the apparent kidnapping of a young girl. Turns out the kidnapper is her grandfather (the author, of course). To entertain her, granddad promises to tell her about a bear in an attic. He begins with the story of how McManus' cowardly cousin goes AWOL from the U.S. Army by hiding in his parents' attic. He does so in collusion with his mother, though his father never knows a thing until the FBI raids the place and takes the young man off to lockup. But what does all this have to do with a bear? McManus' granddaughter asks. The storyteller then spins off into the sequel in which his uncle brings home a bear cub. McManus' aunt thinks the pup is cute and adopts it. The bear cub calls her Mawmaw. Eventually, the animal is opening the refrigerator himself, downing whole bags of dog food at one sitting and occupying the uncle's favorite chair. Pretty soon, the bear isn't so cute, but when he wants to hibernate in the attic, Mawmaw doesn't have the heart to refuse him. Is this just a funny story involving wildlife or a metaphor for child-rearing?The reader will have to draw his own conclusions. McManus doesn't supply any more clues. If you go far enough back in the tradition of storytelling, the skillful liar like Ulysses is also the greatest storyteller. McManus freely admits that he stretches the truth to get a good tale.
Hunters and fishers learn the art of creative lying. After all, admitting that you caught only a small fish or clean missed that deer is just a little too dreary. McManus takes the campfire hyperbole to new levels of magic, and the reader is always the winner. Lynn Hamilton writes from Tybee Island, Georgia.