Duncan, David James 1952-
Duncan, David James 1952-
Born February 3, 1952, in Portland, OR; son of Elwood Dean Duncan and Donna Jean Rowe; married Adrian Arleo (a sculptor); has children. Education: Portland State University, Portland, OR, B.A., 1973.
"Writer, conservationist, father, fly fisherman, contemplative."
The Brothers K, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1992.
River Teeth: Stories and Writings, Doubleday (New York, NY), 1995, Dial Press (New York, NY), 2006.
My Story as Told by Water: Confessions, Druidic Rants, Reflections, Bird-Watchings, Fish-Stalkings, Visions, Songs and Prayers Refracting Light, from Living Rivers, in the Age of the Industrial Dark, Sierra Club Books (San Francisco, CA), 2001.
God Laughs & Plays: Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right, Triad Institute (Great Barrington, MA), 2006.
Frank Boyden: The Empathies, Hallie Ford Museum of Art (Salem, OR), 2006.
David James Duncan often speaks and writes about environmental topics. His first book, The River Why, echoes conservationist themes and was the first work of fiction ever published by the Sierra Club. The setting is Oregon, where Gus Orviston pursues his true love: fly fishing. Martin Brady, reviewing the work in Booklist, wrote that the book has a "host of vivid characters," including Eddy, an outrageous fisher woman "who secures for him a deep insight into the mysterious machinations of nature." A Publishers Weekly reviewer stated that "the feeling for … the imperiled natural world is moving, rhapsodic in its intensity; the writing, energetic, excessive, sometimes merely prolix, is literary in a distinctively American way." In an article posted on the Sierra Club Web site, Duncan said that his western Oregon home of four decades fell to the timber companies and the U.S. Forest Service, which had destroyed the trees in the coastal watersheds surrounding the home in less than four years. Duncan packed up his family and moved to Montana, "not in hopes of a ‘better world,’ but in hopes of at least raising my little girls amid some inviolable wilderness and a few wild streams."
Duncan's second novel, The Brothers K, is "a baseball story, a story about growing up in the 1960s, about Vietnam, Canada, and India, and about religion, but mostly it is about a family named Chance—two parents, four brothers and twin sisters," wrote Mitch Finley in the National Catholic Reporter. "It's a family story the way the Book of Genesis is a family story—in your face, filled with heart-breakingly, infuriating human characters and twists and turns that could happen only in real life." The Chance family's religion is Seventh-Day Adventist, as was Duncan's family. Papa Hugh Chance, a baseball pitcher whose crushed thumb shortens his career, later revives his professional career when part of his big toe is grafted onto the thumb. "Baseball provides the central metaphor for this huge hypnotic novel, but although in that sport a 'K' indicates a strikeout, here it scores a home run," wrote Charles Michaud in the Library Journal. Eloise Kinney wrote in Booklist that the book is "laugh-out-loud funny throughout" and "does what a novel should do …: teaches you something, makes you think, breaks your heart, and mends it again."
Duncan's River Teeth: Stories and Writings is a collection of fiction and nonfiction. A Publishers Weekly reviewer said the nonfiction entries, the river teeth, "pack the greater wallop. There's a whimsical, sentimental and very Zen sensibility at work in the short stories, although the Theme and Meaning often strut too blatantly." Bernard Cooper wrote in the Los Angeles Times Book Review that the "prose epiphanies" of the book are "part memoir and part prose poem, … obdurate remains of memory, flashes of the author's history that are purged of everything but their most vivid and essential features…. They concentrate … on the core of a particular memory, the sharp emotion and surreal imagery that cause certain scenes to stick in the mind for years." Cooper believed that "Duncan has a knack for locating his narrators—fictional characters or the writer himself—at some juncture in understanding, a change of perception or heart that is usually brought about by nature's unpredictable forces." Of Duncan's prose, Cooper wrote that it is "both inventive and memorable." Janet St. John wrote in Booklist that Duncan "deftly characterizes modern life and American culture—our fears, desires, and drives—revealing in these exquisite vignettes and tales all that shapes a life."
In My Story as Told by Water: Confessions, Druidic Rants, Reflections, Bird-Watchings, Fish-Stalkings, Visions, Songs and Prayers Refracting Light, from Living Rivers, in the Age of the Industrial Dark, Duncan tells about his lifelong fascination with wild salmon, which began when he first saw a coho salmon at age six. Despite the fact that the rivers Duncan fished as a child have largely disappeared as Portland's suburbs expanded, the book is not a "relentlessly gloomy, unreadably depressing" story of environmental disaster, according to Mary Losure in the Ruminator Review, but "a leisurely, meditative ramble that hooks you like a trout and draws you in." She also noted: "The essays resonate with hope as well as sadness," and she praised Duncan's open "reverence for nature." In Sports Afield, Jack Larson wrote: "Duncan is an activist refreshingly light on dogma," and in Publishers Weekly, a reviewer commented: "The sum of these many pieces is a vital whole."
God Laughs & Plays: Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right collects a series of Duncan's religious essays and musings in which he advocates Christian feeling and behavior with both a sense of humor and a sharp, entertaining sense of humor. His premise is that religion and politics should not be intertwined, and that modern media has played a heavy role in muddying the ways in which people maintain their faith. Bryan Doyle, in a review for the Christian Century, dubbed Duncan "a startling and refreshing voice beyond orthodoxy and religious politics," and his book "a basic text for anyone who has the slightest interest in the revolutionary and paradoxical words and acts of Yeshua ben Joseph, whose entire message can be distilled to the words love, mercy and hope."
Duncan prefers to divulge little about his personal life, once telling CA: "Anonymity is a midwife to my meager art." He wrote in Sierra: "I became a nonfiction writer—after no apprenticeship whatever—at the age of forty. I did so not out of a sense of calling, but out of a sense of betrayal, out of rage over natural systems violated, out of grief for a loved world raped, and out of a craving for justice."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Booklist, February 1, 1983, Martin Brady, review of The River Why, p. 714; May 1, 1992, Eloise Kinney, review of The Brothers K, p. 1562; May 15, 1995, review of River Teeth: Stories and Writings, p. 1627; January 1, 1996, review of River Teeth, p. 737.
Christian Century, February 6, 2007, Bryan Doyle, "American Mystic," review of God Laughs & Plays: Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right, p. 36.
Library Journal, June 1, 1992, Charles Michaud, review of The Brothers K, p. 172.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, July 2, 1995, Bernard Cooper, review of River Teeth, p. 3.
National Catholic Reporter, October 2, 1992, Mitch Finley, review of The River Why, p. 18.
Publishers Weekly, November 12, 1982, review of The River Why, p. 58; May 15, 1995, review of River Teeth, pp. 56-57; June 18, 2001, review of My Story as Told by Water: Confessions, Druidic Rants, Reflections, Bird-Watchings, Fish-Stalkings, Visions, Songs and Prayers Refracting Light, from Living Rivers, in the Age of the Industrial Dark, p. 72.
Ruminator Review, fall, 2001, Mary Losure, review of My Story as Told by Water, p. 30.
Sierra, September, 2000, author interview, p. 52.
Sports Afield, September, 2001, Jack Larson, review of My Story as Told by Water, p. 57.
Montana.com,http://www.montana.com/ (June 4, 2002).
Sierra Club Web site,http://www.sierraclub.org/ (June 4, 2002).