Monday, December 05, 2016

The Road Home

Among the creative people who influenced my life and who died in 2016 was Jim Harrison.  Preparing to write a brief remembrance in this final month of that year, I found reviews of his books I'd written over the years.  I thought I'd add them to this online archive of my published and unpublished work.

I'll do them in separate posts, beginning with the earliest review I could find.  I've left in the inevitable repetitions so each review can stand alone.

Looking them over, I wonder if I didn't miss a major point about Harrison's work.  He dealt with primal themes and dangerous relationships.  In his most famous story, "Legends of the Fall," three brothers are in love with the same woman.  In Dalva/The Road Home, there's a marriage between half-siblings; two brothers and perhaps their father bedding the same woman, several marriages and affairs with siblings of spouses (though a widower marrying the sister of his dead wife is said to be a Lakota tradition.)

This is a version of my first published review of Harrison's work (in Orion Magazine.)  This novel remains my favorite--I consider it one of the best American novels of my time.

THE ROAD HOME, A Novel by Jim Harrison.
 Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998.
 464 pages.

"Nebraska reminds me of what America was supposed to look like before it became something else," Jim Harrison comments in "From the Dalva Notebooks," published in his book of non-fiction, Just Before Dark. 

Through swirls of events and thickets of passions, obsessions and relationships it takes two novels and some 800 pages to describe, the road home leads to the timeless Nebraska landscape, where as a kind of analogue to other natural cycles, members of the Northridge family walk and hunt with beloved dogs, eat and drink gloriously, make love, ride horses, read and treasure books as well as painting and music, watch birds, observe and take care of the land and each other, ponder, puzzle, reflect, regret and remember, as they had for over a hundred years.

 But from the opening sentence of THE ROAD HOME, the capacious and deeply satisfying companion novel to the stunning "Dalva" of a decade ago, the themes of mortality and time are also present. Lives are distorted notably by wars (World War I, Korea, Vietnam), while the land and Native peoples are insistently and inexorably destroyed by rapacious agents of greed and deadly beliefs. There are several deaths (the final home where the road leads) rendered with grace and ceremony and the elegiac rhythms of a writer with some years on his meter.

 But the road is also a way, a journey that demands consciousness, clarity and truthful statement, which Harrison produces in an abundance of cogent, witty, memorable, epigrammatic prose. This for me is the foremost achievement of this novel, and at minimum contributes mightily to the pleasure of reading every page. Harrison's years of meditation show clearly in this exactness, as does his reading of classic Zen poets who can be as least as ribald, tortured and funny as any American Beat.

 THE ROAD HOME takes the narrative of "Dalva" forward a little in time, but basically it adds more breadth and depth to the same events, concentrating on the perspectives of Dalva and her family: her grandfather ("a prairie Lear" as Harrison describes him in the Dalva Notebooks), the son she first meets as a young man ( who roams the western landscape as a deliberate contemporary nomad, trying "to understand the world, especially the natural world as I seemed to draw up short on human beings"),her uncle (and surrogate father), and her mother.

This pair of novels offers unusual possibilities--reading and re-reading each in relation to the other, reading parts of one that match up with the same time or event in the other, finding the symmetries that might be fate or beauty or both, and otherwise discovering the literary rendering of the hypertext of life.

 Harrison is rightly praised for his vivid evocation of the natural landscape and the values embedded in it, but what makes him one of the few novelists of non-urban subjects to win wide readership and establishment praise (even if the New York Times Book Review containing his rave review nevertheless put Tom Wolfe on the cover) is the unique landscape of his writing.

 His sentences are rhythmic and perfectly formed, his prose is often formal(he is the only contemporary writer I know who habitually uses the words "captious" and "otiose")but his paragraphs are as wild as river rapids. Sentences tumble from one subject to another, changing geographical locations and sometimes centuries, linked by rhythm and their own particular logic. Although almost everything in this book is presented as having been written down in journals and letters, Harrison's prose has the sound of speech, yet no one actually speaks this way, except maybe Jim Harrison, at least in interviews.

 I think of Harrison's work also as a bridge, for example, linking urban readers ushered by literary quality to the urgency of attending to the natural world, or by linking nature and culture as only someone with his credentials in both can do. Harrison is profligate and generous in naming the work of specific writers, and their importance in his characters' lives may encourage his readers to seek them out. For me, reading "Dalva" and its accounts of contemporary mixed bloods and the 19th century Lakota was a specific bridge to fiction that is by as well as about Native Americans. (In fact, I found my paperback of "Dalva" on a shelf marked "Miscellaneous" in a small town used bookstore in the central Pennsylvania mountains, along with Peter Matthiessen's "Indian Country," a book of contemporary Native short stories, and novels by Native author Thomas King. I bought and read them all, but started with "Dalva.")

The interplay of present and recollections or rediscoveries of the past form the basic movement of most of Harrison's fiction, and this rises to artful and powerful meaning in THE ROAD HOME. There is a sense here not of an ending but of a kind of completion, as well as in the coincident publication of Harrison's new and collected poems, THE SHAPE OF THE JOURNEY(Copper Canyon Press). "To write a poem you must first create a pen that will write what you want to say. For better or worse, this is the work of a lifetime," Harrison asserts in his preface to a series of Zen inspired poems, included in this substantial and revelatory volume. THE ROAD HOME is the work of a lifetime, in that sense and more.

 "With all our self-consciousness," writes Ursula LeGuin," we have very little sense of where we live, where we are right here or right now. If we did, we wouldn't muck it up the way we do." Jim Harrison's timely and timeless work has that kind of honesty, urgency and density. His achievement is to do so well what he observes in music of birds, as he writes in the last line of the last poem in THE SHAPE OF THE JOURNEY: "They sing what and where they are."

Here are some additional notes on this novel taken from a longer essay on four books by Harrison, Paul Shepard, Richard Powers and Linda Hogan.  It includes some repetitions from the Orion review but I've tried to keep them to a minimum.

JIM HARRISON's literary voice has always been unique and entertaining, and this aspect of his craft reaches something of an apotheosis in The Road Home. Partly it is the off-center language, a combination of the contemporary and antique (to my knowledge he is the only well-known novelist to regularly employ the words "otiose" and "captious", which to me are so arcane that I still have to look them up whenever I read him.) Partly it is the construction and cadences: while his sentences are logical and perfectly formed, his paragraphs are as wild as river rapids.

Within them sentences tumble from one subject to another, changing geographical locations and sometimes centuries, linked by rhythm and their own particular logic. Harrison typically builds his stories with an ongoing narration that links recollections of the main action, often as written in journals or letters. In this book, almost everything is presented as having been previously written down by the characters. Still, Harrison's prose always has the sound of speech, even if no one actually speaks that way, except maybe Harrison, at least in interviews.

This voice is heard most clearly in the many cogent, witty and epigrammatic observations and asides his characters make. All of these elements coalese somewhere near perfection in this novel, making every page a pleasure to read (especially after the first 100, which seem a bit awkward compared to the 350 that follow.)

Perhaps Harrison's years of meditation inform this exactness, along with his reading of classic Zen poets who can be as least as ribald, tortured and funny as any American Beat. Harrison's subjects and the elements of contemporary life are also odd, when compared to the dominant urban-centered and Zeitgeist-minded fiction.

In Dalva, his unhinged heroine came home to the family homestead, a sprawling ranch in Nebraska, established by the progenitor John Northridge in the mid 19th century. Dalva is a Northridge, a multigenerational family of Euro-Americans with several points of alliance and intermarriage with the Lakota Sioux of these plains.

The Road Home is a kind of sequel, moving the narrative forward a little in time, but basically adding more breadth and depth to the same events, concentrating on the perspectives of Dalva and her family: her grandfather ("a prairie Lear" as Harrison describes him elsewhere), the son she put up for adoption and first meets as a young man ,her uncle (and surrogate father), and her mother.

 There is a remarkable sense of continuity in these four generations, and it is predicated on the land. Life on the Northridge ranch is simple and yet highly cultivated. Here the Northridge generations hike, ride and hunt, eat and drink gloriously, read books and talk and write about them, keep journals and read past journals of others, so the past is a considered part of their present.

 Of course it wouldn't be a Harrison narrative without swales, dogs and garlic, so these too are part of his most integrated vision of home. 

There is one self-conscious wanderer in this book, whose journey to find a lost home is actual. Dalva's son Nelse, who as a young man read a magazine article about nomads (likely an excerpt of Bruce Chatwin's book, The Songlines) and set out to be a deliberate nomad, traveling the west with no fixed address, trying "to understand the world, especially the natural world as I seemed to draw up short on human beings."

 But Nelse was adopted and he doesn't know his mother's identity. His wandering takes on another purpose when he seeks and finds Dalva and his ancestral home, repeating Dalva's own journey in the previous novel, the last section of which was called "Coming Home."

This is another function of home in this novel: as a place where journeys begin and end, and where lives can be recollected in tranquility in between. The characters are torn from home by their own passions and obsessions (principally love and art); and their lives, particularly those of the men, are permanently distorted by war (from the Indian wars through World War I, Korea and Vietnam.) The road home is everyone's life's journey.

And so this novel--this two-volume saga--presents the births, dreams, marriages, sex, misunderstandings, regrets, brawls, tantrums, brushes with the law, even some gun-play of characters that live over a century of American history. The real-time events in the novel are mostly the rhythmic activities of daily life, and the big events are mostly remembered. Because of this considered, precisely expressed observation and thought, each event has texture and density.

In turn, memories and the thoughts and emotions they evoke give more weight and dimension to the simple acts of living, which become rituals of affirmation and grief. Harrison is rightly praised for his vivid evocation of the natural landscape and the values embedded in it, although here the landscape is also cultivated. This isn't wilderness or the Pleistocene--it is the Midwest formed from the frontier by stubborn Scandinavians, who provide Harrison with some piquant and McMurtryesque minor characters.

 Still, everything about this family refers ultimately and deeply to the land, including their name. Home is a place of grounding, and therefore it is vital that it be a home that sits in nature, that partakes of timelessness in the modern age. Like the homes of the foragers, it's a place to go away from and come back to, yet unlike the Pleistocene foragers, the contemporary forager is never quite sure where he is or what she's looking for, or why they wander.

 Dogs and horses are as individual and perhaps as important as people in this novel, and contact with the land is the lifeblood of these characters. It's when people can no longer ride or hunt that they know it's time to die.

The deaths, both violent and natural, are prominent, and several are described at length, giving this book an elegiac tone as well as an epic scope. The Road Home also leads to death, the home where the journey ends. The sense of elegy extends also to the land, which the characters often fret about, whether it is on the ranch or on the backroads. When one is faced with imminent loss, the only creative act is careful remembering. Memory is another home.