Golden Boy Lures the Big Fish
By Alexandra Jacobs
The New York Observer
April 26, 1999
“I’m too overwhelmed and touched and flattered and on the verge of tears…,” said James Prosek at the Explorers Club on the evening of April 14, and he looked like he meant it. The tall, boyish 23-year-old writer and fish painter was being feted for his third book, The Complete Angler, a literary travelogue of an angling trip he took to England, patterned after Izaak Walton’s 1653 philosophical fishing tract. Looking awkward in his suit, Mr. Prosek exuded the innocent golden-boy aura, which , in the two years since he graduated from Yale University, has earned him the misty-eyed affection of powerful men such as best-selling Shakespeare scholar and Yale professor, Harold Bloom, NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, New York Times editorial page editor Howell Raines, former President George Bush and Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner, who spent $2000 on four of Mr. Prosek’s fish paintings, which hang in Mr. Wenner’s Sun Valley, Idaho, home.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen him cry!” joked someone in the crowd. Yalies were swarming amid the taxidermy at the musty, red leather-and-oak edifice on East 70th Street, a club whose members have included Edmund P. Hillary and Charles Lindbergh, and, more recently, Mr. Prosek. Speeches over—HarperCollins editor Larry Ashmead had cracked, “We can certainly say that James is mediagenic!”—the crowd jostled toward its hero, who was dispensing hugs to old friends and day-old-acquaintances alike. Classmate Wym Van Wyk, a tall, blindingly blond man in a charcoal suit, idled near the staircase. He said he works at Sotheby’s and lives on the Upper East Side. Looking toward the man of the hour, he said, “For me, he’s an inspiration. You know, I worked at a bank before. Knowing James helped inspire me to try something else.” A giant stuffed bear stared down at him.
Dink Stover is dead. The hero of Owen Johnson’s 1912 novel, Stover at Yale, readied himself for public life by joining Skull and Bones and playing football. But in 1999, the new Yale man is more like Mr. Prosek: a sensitive, blue-eyed, downy-limbed sprite who’s already plowed through three major Manhattan publishers (Alfred A. Knopf, Rob Weisbach and now HarperCollins) and who has risen not through the bloodlines of the old-boy network, but through a bloodless, new old-boy network, composed largely of fly fishermen with media connections whom Mr. Prosek has hooked with his unassuming, self-deprecating brand of flattery.
And he’s landed some big ones. “James? He’s a very charming man,” said Mr. Wenner. “He’s got a lot of charm and intelligence, and a nice, fresh-faced appeal.” Mr. Brokaw fished with him, avuncularly, on a Nightly News segment. Mr. Bush has written him an adoring, if largely illegible, fan note. Ted Turner contributes to the same environmentally conscious foundations. The Times’ Mr. Raines has attended all of his book parties. “I hope James and I get to fish this year,” Mr. Raines, author of 1994’s Fly-Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis. “There’s a kind of fraternal feeling among fly fishers.”
Indeed. “I think James was the beneficiary of, well, the largesse of old white men,” said one female classmate. “I don’t know anyone my age who is interested in anything James Prosek writes about. I don’t think that means he’s a bad writer.” She added, “It’s very safe to think that James Prosek is cute if you’re an older man, if you’re a straight older man, because he’s so wholesome, and he talks about fishing. I don’t mean to say that they’re pedophiles or anything like that. I just mean that there’s no trace of effeminacy or liberalism or anything vaguely countercultural associated with his persona. He’s a very nice emblem.”
‘TROUT BOY’ AT YALE
“I didn’t know Knopf from Cheerios,” said Mr. Prosek of his premature induction into Manhattan’s highest literary echelons. It was two days before his Explorers Club soiree, and the author was thigh-deep in the murky waters of Mill River in Easton, Conn., an hour north of Manhattan and a few miles from the $500,000 house that he recently bought with his sister, Jennifer, 29, a Columbia University M.B.A. student who moonlights as his publicist. The house is two doors down from where they grew up.
Beneath his high-tech but still irredeemably dorky waders, Mr. Prosek, who is 6 feet 1 ½ inches tall and weighs 170 pounds, was outfitted in Late 90’s Male, with a dash of innocent British schoolboy: gray Banana Republic trousers, a checkered North Face polyester shirt and blue socks. His cheeks were flushed; his lips were full; a pair of dusty deck shoes waited by the bank.
“I didn’t know who Jann Wenner was,” he continued, in between whiplike cracks of his fishing line. But as a teenager, his next door neighbor in Easton was Samuel Beckett biographer Deirdre Bair. Young James mowed her lawn; his dad, a retired science teacher, showed her stacks of his son’s poetry. Later, she helped wangle him and agent, Elaine Markson, of whom he has said, “She’s probably woman I admire more than any other.”
He first tried fishing when he was 5, but only really became “crazed” at age 9, when his mother left his father for another man. “I have a lot of abandonment issues,” he said. I lieu of therapy, he believes fishing helped him overcome and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
As for his fixation on trout, he couldn’t really explain it.
“I just can’t think of any creature other than the human body that is as pretty to my eye,” he said. He reserves a particular affection for the trout of Fairfield County, which he dubbed “opportunistic feeders.” On this day, however, after an hour of fishing, he caught nary a minnow.
Perched on his bed back home, Mr. Prosek described himself as floundering somewhat during his freshman year at Yale. Vowing to publish before age 20, he mailed a proposal, cold, to 10 publishers; Alfred A. Knopf editor and fly-fishing dabbler Gary Fisketjon (he of Jay McInerney, Bret Easton Ellis and Cormac McCarthy) was the only one who bit. Knopf advanced the freshman $10,000 for Trout, in which he meticulously illustrated the taxonomy of the species.
“His writing qualities weren’t maybe his stongest suit,” said Mr. Fisketjon, “but what was immediately apparent was his basic nature, which is to say passionate and not even remotely snotty about something that many people tend to be snotty about.”
In short order, The New York Times ran a glowing piece comparing Mr. Prosek to John James Audubon; and Mr. Fisketjon helped arrange a cover story in Sports Afield, then edited by Mr. Fisketjon’s pal, Terry McDonnell. “Gary is a kingmaker,” said Mr. Prosek, who counts Machiavelli’s The Prince as one of his favorite books.
Then, synergy: One night on Friends, Chandler was spotted paging through Trout. In the spring of his junior year, Mr. Prosek appeared on the cover of the Yale Alumni Magazine in full fly-fishing regalia. “I mean, yeah, they kind of laughed about it, you know—‘Trout Boy,’” he said, of the subsequent drubbing he received in his residential college newsletter. “But, you know, I think they kind of respected it.” He also joined a secret society—not Skull and Bones, but one called Manuscript, filled with mostly preppy artsy types.
Out in the real world, the big fish read about Mr. Prosek and got hooked. “When any of these people who have been trout thinkers or trout writers—and they are legion—reach a critical mass of geezerhood, they worry about the future of their sport,” said Mr. McDonnell, who now edits Men’s Journal. “And then here out of nowhere was this 17-year-old kid who was brilliant and devoted all of his time to doing these paintings that were exactly right… There was a sense of relief, an aha! So that sort of swept the literary fishing community.”
Mr. Prosek visited Mr. Raines at The Times, where he signed a book for Oscar de la Renta; he formed a band, called Trout, and left a demo tape for Mr. Wenner. But he still had to go to class: He “skipped cheerily,” as he writes in The Complete Angler, to Mr. Bloom’s office.
The professor was quite taken. “I must say I’ve had a lot of students, graduate and undergraduate, through all these many decades, that I’ve cared for immensely,” said Mr. Bloom. “But I’m not sure, in the end, I’ve ever been as fond of any of them as I have been of James.” He added, “James wrote a remarkable version really of Paradise Lost. It has a kind of splendid, glowing intensity… I’ve never known anyone who didn’t like James!”
“Of course, I’m not trying to suggest he is an angel or anything like that,” giggled Mr. Bloom over the clink of teacups. “He is what the French would call an average sensual male.”
Back in Mr. Prosek’s Yale dorm room, the phone messages piled up. The scrapbook of clippings grew fat.
“Of course you were a little jealous,” said Andy Karch, 24, Mr. Prosek’s roommate of three years, currently a doctoral candidate in political science at Harvard University. “It was human nature. But he has this kind of aw-shucks mentality. You’re not going to hate him.”
“Junior year, whenever he felt particularly frisky,” remembered Mr. Karch, “he would put on his silk shirt that he called his party shirt. One night at a party, he was dancing up a storm, as he was famous for, and I guess he got a little bit out of control, and ripped his jeans wide open, and so there he was, with his powder-blue silk shirt and burgundy silk boxers, on the floor of Eli Levenson’s room.”
During the fall of his senior year, Mr. Prosek turned his sights to a novel, signed with Rob Weisback’s splashy new imprint at William Morrow and wrote Joe and Me, a memoir of his mentor relationship with an Easton ranger.
Mr. Weisback wanted him to follow up with a book in which he would take 20 “interesting” people fishing. But, said the writer, “I don’t want to go too commercial.” He sold The Complete Angler to HarperCollins’ Mr. Ashmead for $60,000. His next advance, for a book about fishing the 41st Parallel, which crosses Madrid, Beijing, the Gobi desert, Albania, Nantucket and Easton, Conn., was in the low six figures, plus considerable traveling expenses.
Classmate Aaron Kennon, 23, an analyst for Salomon Smith Barney Inc., said, “I would almost sort of consider him the Hemingway of the 21st century.”
Others might agree. “A friend of mine had a disastrous date with him,” sniffed another recent Yale graduate, a woman who lives on the Lower East Side and works in publishing. “He got really drunk and just kind of forgot she existed and left her at a party where she didn’t know anybody. It was horrifying, so bad that he called a couple of weeks later to apologize formally. All the more so because, one is supposed to take for granted this impression of James Prosek as this nice all-American boy.”
“I have no recollection of that,” responded Mr. Prosek with some anguish. “It sounds like somebody I didn’t even know I was on a date with.”
He met his current girlfriend, Valerie Green, a half-American, half-French 23-year-old, on the bus to Kennedy International Airport. She is studying medicine in Rouen, France. “She lives in this little apartment,” he said. “In Madame Bovary, the character in the beginning lives in the same street, on the same floor, and is a med student, too.”
She doesn’t fish. “My God, why would I?” she said at the Explorers Club party.
“He’s too young to have a permanent girl at this point,” said Mr. Bloom. “I don’t want him to foreclose his life in any way.”
“Women and trout are very close for me,” Mr. Prosek said. “They’re the things I regard as the most esthetically wonderful creatures. But you know, I don’t have any sexual attraction to fish, although you know fish are very kind of phallic. If you look at a fish from the bottom, they look a lot like, you know, male genitalia.” He paused. “In ancient Rome, they put mullet in women’s vaginas as a punishment for adultery. Isn’t that horrible?”
As the Explorers Club party wound down, several Yalies trouped to an afterparty, held in an Upper East Side apartment belonging to the parents of Manuscript member. Classmate Eli Levinson, tie flung over his shoulder, was thoughtfully eating lasagna. “I feel like Yale is very unique in that people stay on campus, people end up socializing in people’s rooms, they get to know people very intimately that way,” said Mr. Levenson, who lives on the West Side and works in government. “When people meet you from outside they think, ‘Oh my goodness, you must be hyperintelligent,’ but I think what you see in James, and what you see in the best Yale guys, is an extremely, extremely, self-effacing quality.”
Mr. Prosek seconded that assessment of himself.
“For me, it’s kind of about [Izaak] Walton’s philosophy of life, which is to live as simply as you can, to be content, to be humble,” he said. “To me it’s not just about trout, it’s about life.”
He said he had recently pitched a story to The New Yorker that ended up in a Conde Nast advertising supplement instead. But he was not daunted.
“Society and the public tend to label and pigeonhole people,” he said. “I prefer not to be pigeonholed.”
A River Runs Through Him: 23-year old writer
and Fly-fisherboy James Prosek charms
Tom Brokaw, Howell Raines, Jann Wenner,
Harold Bloom, George Bush.