Norman Maclean's A River Runs Through It isn't just a fine short novel. It is a magical piece of writing. It is one of two books I've read that I always recommend.

But controversy has surrounded River from the start and, apparently, it isn't over yet.

At first editors turned the book down for publication because, as one wrote, "These stories have trees in them."

Nevertheless, it has survived, and more than 300,000 copies have been sold. It has become a cult favorite and has been compared to Ernest Hemingway's early Michigan stories. I don't buy the comparison. The two writing styles are totally different.

A River Runs Through It is a story with a haunting quality. In it Maclean recalls his youth in the Big Sky country of Montana and the long days of fly-fishing with his father and younger brother, Paul.

His father was a Scottish Presbyterian minister. His brother, the member of the family with the most natural charm, became a gambler, journalist and street fighter. Paul met death at an early age when he was beaten to death by a blunt instrument in a Chicago alley. The police report stated that Paul's right hand was badly bruised, indicating he had fought for his life to the end.

Maclean's opening line tells of the love these three men had for fishing: "In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly-fishing."

A River Runs Through It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction in a year the committee decided that no prize should be awarded in that category.

I know about that because I worked with Herman Kogan, who was in charge of the fiction category that year. He personally nominated Maclean's book and voted for it for the prize, but he couldn't get enough of the other panel members to agree with him.

Instead, the judges decided to create a special category and give the award to Alex Haley's Roots.

Moviemakers have thought for years that Maclean's book would make a great film. The problem was that Maclean would not sell the rights to anyone he didn't trust. The memory of his father and brother was something he would not allow to be desecrated.

John Hurt, the actor, wanted to buy the rights. Apparently, Hurt is an accomplished fly-fisherman and thought that would win Maclean's support for his project. He set up a meeting with Maclean to go fishing.

Hurt made the mistake of showing up two hours late and without a fishing license. He attempted to make amends by getting the license and going through with their fishing date.

"Well," Hurt asked at the end of the day, "am I a good enough fly-fisherman to play your brother?"
"You're a fine fisherman, but you're not as good as my brother," Maclean said.
"Then maybe I could play you," Hurt said.
Maclean hesitated.
"Okay, you could play me the way I am now, but I wasn't 80 years old in the book."
The next Hollywood figure to set his eye on the project was Robert Redford, who had been turned on to the book by novelist Tom McGuane.

Maclean did not succumb to Redford easily. It took time to create a bond of trust. Redford made several visits to Chicago just for the purpose of getting acquainted. Finally, Redford gave Maclean the right to approve the initial script. Only then did Maclean, who died several years ago, give Redford the right to make the film.

Redford produced and directed the film, made without big-name stars. It opens this weekend in major cities around the country, and in Phoenix October 23. This past month, there has been a carefully distributed mix of stories about Redford's making of the film. Glowing portraits of Redford as the brooding artist, wildlife enthusiast and general mensch have been served up to the unsuspecting public in Esquire magazine, the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. Frankly, they all have the putrid odor of puffery. It is as though each writer agreed before being allowed to interview Redford that the finished essay would contain sufficient praise and reverence for the great man to make his day.

Each writer in turn seemed to be vying with his competitors to make a deeper bow to Redford's eminence. Please bear one thing in mind before you attack these rich and florid excerpts. Redford is not a great actor or a great director. He is merely an exceedingly pampered, wealthy and famous one. Redford has succeeded over the years in creating just one screen persona, that of the handsome, winsome, single-dimensional Robert Redford, who--thanks to camera work--always appears to be half a foot taller than his five feet six inches. There is Robert Redford the downhill racer, the cowboy, the youthful reporter of Watergate and the con man, but they all come within a millimeter of being exactly the same character.

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Tom Fitzpatrick