Add to that list the unexpected voice of Jim McIntyre of Traverse City, who captures the lonely mythos of the north and the hurt dwelling in a man‘s soul in his new spoken-word CD, “Minnow Al - The Keeper of Small Fish.“
Well known in Northern Michigan for his many appearances on local TV and radio commercials over the past 17 years, McIntyre is the executive vice president of Knorr Marketing. His avocation, however, is that of an outdoorsman, spending much of his free time fishing or hunting in such locales as the Canadian Shield country north of Sault Ste. Marie, or Garden Island in Lake Michigan.
Between those two pursuits, McIntyre has found the inspiration to write of his love of what is literally the wild side of life. “I write a lot of radio and TV commercials, but also poetry and short stories too,“ he says. “But I was so obsessed with this trip I made each year that I‘ve been moved to write poetry about it.“
That poetry in prose form comes through in “Minnow Al,“ which is a true story of an encounter with a rough-hewn, profane character who lives at the edge of civilization, eking out a living providing minnows to fishermen passing through. Although the CD clocks in at just over 35 minutes, McIntyre builds a sense of suspense from prosaic events which gradually build into a sense of friendship over a period of years, culminating in a shocking revelation about Al‘s past.
“What happened in the story was witnessed by just me and Minnow Al,“ McIntyre notes. “He was definitely my most unforgettable character.“
In addition to McIntyre‘s skill as a writer with an ear for a good hook, the CD benefits from his many years as an announcer. He tells the story with the same sense of drama as a campfire tale, maintaining the feel of reverence mixed with unease over his encounters with Al that keeps the story from going over the top. He starts out by noting that, “He was was unpleasant -- gross, my kids would have called him, had they known him. The natives called him Frenchy, I called him Minnow Al.“
The events of “Minnow Al“ unfold at a bait outpost on Hammer Lake on Highway 17 North halfway to Wawa in Northern Ontario. Each spring over a 25-year period, McIntyre and his friend Bill traveled north to the region, following the White River to remote Pokei Lake to fish for walleye.
Going back to his early 20s, McIntyre describes his first meeting with Al, who jealously guards his minnows and claims to be selective as to the fishermen he will sell to. Al is a “minnowologist,“ watching over a huge tank filled with thousands of fish. “We watched as he carefully selected each minnow one by one, as if they were jewels,“ McIntyre says.
But Al is also given to cussing out his customers, and although he tends to have a twinkle in his eye, McIntyre senses that the man‘s profanity and gruff attidude masks a deep wound.
The years roll by as the friends return again and again to their “vernal adventure disguised as fishermen.“ Gradually, it dawns on McIntyre that Al holds him in a special esteem not shown to other visitors. “Somewhere in between the expletives and the short sentences comes a conversation and a relationship is formed,“ he tells us in the story.
McIntyre deserves credit for remaining true to Al‘s way of speaking, since every fifth word or so out of his mouth is “fuck“ or “asshole,“ which may be too honest an approach for some listeners. It‘s not a kid‘s CD. But as he notes in an interview, Al‘s profanity is emblematic of his inner pain as well as his way of keeping the world at arm‘s length. Without the profanity, the story would lack a sense of integrity that makes Al‘s torment a mystery worth caring about.
As a counterpoint, McIntyre‘s prose is dead-on when it comes to capturing the spirit of a place where only a few nomadic Ojibwa and trappers dwelled not so many years ago. He describes the rugged, unforgiving terrain around the White River, which runs 192 kilometers to Lake Superior, tumbling 769 over 69 waterfalls before it meets the shore. He tells us of far-off Pokei Lake, a place named after a 19th century Ojibwa trapper, still brimming with fish for those who care to make the long trip to its waters. He takes us up Highway 17 North to a road winding through blasted rock outcroppings and some of North America‘s most beautiful scenery.
And while McIntyre captures the solitude and grandeur of Lake Superior‘s country, he also provides a mirror on how the land affects him. “This is the land I love,“ he tells us. “It‘s where I take my triumphs, my failures, my joys and sorrows. I have planned my future here and reflected on my past.“
On this ride, McIntyre coaxes us into caring about Minnow Al and what disturbs him. He carefully builds the suspense of his tale with the patience of a fisherman probing dark waters. There‘s a payoff as Al‘s story unravels and his fate is revealed. Like a trout pulled from cold, fast-running water, this story shimmers with vitality and the spirit of things untamed.
“Minnow Al -- The Keeper of Small Fish“ is available at Talking Book World in Traverse City.