Fish tale that doesn’t flounder

Nature hates a vacuum and rushes to fill it. Human lives are not as responsive. We have to do it ourselves. When we are confronted with losses and absences, we have to choose how to replace those lost connections and fill those empty hours. Unfortunately, many of those choices — drink, drugs, serial relationships, television, the Internet — can’t fill the longing within our hearts, to soften the rough edges on our shredded souls.

The narrator in “Big Fish” by Daniel Wallace is confronted with an absent father who came home only to die. Unlike the implication of his last name, Edward Bloom could only grow when he was traveling, making money. “The very idea of coming home at the same time every single day made him just a little nauseated. Regardless of how much he loved his wife, his son, he could only stand so much love.”

While it may work for him, it leaves his son trying to fill the gaps. He makes up stories about his father: where he came from, how he grew up, what he did. They were not just any stories, but tales of the fantastic. Edward Bloom was born on the day Alabama’s worst drought in 40 years broke. He could converse with the animals. He could run so fast “he could arrive in a place before setting out to get there.” He subdued a wild dog, rescued a river nymph, bought a small town and saved his son’s life twice.

But most of all, Edward Bloom was a teller of jokes, an alcoholic consumer of puns and punch lines. Even in the four chapter scattered among the 25 vignettes — the book is only 180 pages long — Bloom tells jokes to his son (“Doctor, doctor, I’ve only got 59 seconds to live.” “I’ll be there in a minute.”) who, in turn, grows increasingly exasperated. Annoyed, but at least he has someone to be annoyed at. Better than nothing.

“Big Fish” is another of those pocket-sized books that have grown increasingly popular since the success of Alan Lightman’s “Einstein’s Dreams” years ago. Like that book, it’s almost impossible to describe except by what it’s not. It’s not a novel so much as, in effect, a tone poem, a performance piece on paper, a dreamlike tribute to a distant but loved man and the transforming power of story telling and humor.