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One of the most satisfying things about a long career in outdoors communications is celebrating the success of aspiring writers I've mentored.

One is John Gifford, who job-shadowed me in the summer of 1999 at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation.

Gifford, who had just finished a stint in the armed services, wanted to be a writer. He was a big fan of Outdoor Oklahoma magazine, for which I was associate editor, so he made a cold call and asked if I would show him the ropes. It wasn't a formal internship, so there was no tangible benefit for him, not even as a resume item.

We hit it off immediately. Heck, we even drove identical trucks, 1995 Nissan SE-V6 extended cab 4x4s with the same graphics scheme. We spent a lot of time discussing how magazine articles are structured, how to organize and source information, and how to mold it all into an entertaining and authoritative story.

Gifford eventually went his way. We corresponded until 2002, when his first book, Oklahoma Sportfishing was published, and then we fell out of touch.

Since then, Gifford has been published in The Saturday Evening Post, The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Review, the Southwest Review, the Arkansas Review and others.

His latest work is a collection of short stories titled, The Sharks of Al Jubail and Other Stories, published by Bowen Press.

Gifford is an avid angler, so it's no surprise that many of his stories have fishing themes. My favorite of these is "Confluence," a story of an up-and-coming insurance ace, Travis, who abandons the alpha-dominated hustle of the Los Angeles insurance world to become a fly fishing bum. Naturally, this causes an irreconcilable estrangement with his career-oriented, materialistic wife.

Working for a fly-fishing shop, Travis teaches Leslie, an edgy bachelorette, to cast a fly rod at a casting clinic. Leslie idolizes her late grandfather, who took her in after her mother died and her father abandoned her. She took over his law firm when he died, and she is eternally grateful to him for saving her from a life of poverty and perhaps worse.

The grandfather was a world-traveling fly fisherman. The Deschutes River in Oregon was his favorite destination, and Leslie wants to cast in the Deschutes in his honor.

Travis agrees to teach her in exchange for handling his divorce case.

Curiously, Leslie wants to cast as adroitly as her grandfather did, but she abhors the thought of actually catching a fish. It's a way for her to more fully fill his shoes, and secondarily to understand more intimately what made him tick.

Travis tries to convince her that catching a fish is the only way to close the loop. Without it, she cannot truly touch her grandfather's spirit.

Gifford's spare, unadorned style combines elements of Tobias Wolfe and John Gierach. His protagonists are scuffed and dented, but their motives are sincere. A constant duality of wealthy antagonists and enablers provides tension.

The plots twist like dust devils and then end abruptly at four-way stops, leaving you to wonder which turn the characters take and whether their paths lead to fulfillment or additional disappointment.

Gifford occasionally sabotages a sketch's credibility with irreconcilable logical departures, as in "Second Chance," about a parolee's search for redemption. An old Monte Carlo, sitting idle in a storage facility for five years, would probably not start at the first turn of the key. The battery would likely have discharged and the fuel would have gone bad. And, of course, the license plate would long have expired, creating an unreasonable risk for a parolee -- Bo Cartwright -- who already violated his terms by crossing state lines to access the car.

Later, at a hog farm near Fort Smith, the son of the Cartwright's employer is bitten by a cottonmouth while noodling for catfish. Cartwright cuts a cross over the bite and sucks out the venom, a long discredited tactic. Gifford doubtless knows this, so I assume the cross and the viper are redemptive religious symbols.

My favorite story is the first in the collection, "What Money Won't Buy." Here, a teenager from the wrong side of the tracks running with a more affluent crowd learns the value of his name.

Your name is all you really have, so protect it at all costs.

It's a lesson I've always preached to my own kids, and it reminds me of why Gifford and I bonded so well all those years ago.

Sports on 07/12/2018

Print Headline: Friend's new book a worthy read

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