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  I thought I'd add them to this online archive of my published and unpublished work.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.

Off to the Side by Jim Harrison

As far as I can recall, this is an unpublished, personal response (though it might be on a blog somewhere) to Jim Harrison's 2002 memoir, Off to the Side.

Off to the Side is not your typical memoir of the current publishing Zeitgeist. There’s no straight through-line of bad boy goes through hell---a constant Survivor show from childhood on---to revelation, reform and what psychologist and author Dan McAdams calls the most characteristic American theme: redemption.

 Or even the celebrity memoir variation of the rise, the fall and the resurrection. So you’re unlikely to see him on Oprah, at least until she wisely chooses one of his books of fiction for her book club.

 That’s not to say there aren’t all those elements in there, although far more modestly than any best-selling memoir would dare. His concern is the texture and the truth of experience, not fulfilling a simplistic pattern, or even enacting an archetypal tale.

 The book is full of the same keen observations, wit and peculiarly artful sentences as his fiction, and even his interviews. Some of the subjects are familiar from those other sources, but he does cover some areas of his life unreported elsewhere, with consideration and candor. But like his characters, he tends to mix memories and times with general observations, staying true to his character’s experiences, and in this case his own writing the memoir. In this connection he chose a very apt epigraph for the book, from Rilke: “Beware, o wanderer, the road is walking, too.” 

 His childhood in Michigan during World War II was immersed in farm life and the natural world, and then by hunting, fishing and the wildlife near his family’s cabin on a lake. There is a quality of his attention then, and therefore later as a writer, that probably owes a lot to the fact that this was a pre-television childhood.

 It was one of the last ones, too. I was among the first generation of children to grow up with TV in the home, beginning when I was 4 or 5. There were advantages to having such wonders as enacted stories in your living room, but also disadvantages. My outdoor longings and experiences lacked informed attention, coherence, confidence or patience. But they were important nevertheless. Then again, though I lived with patches of woods and open fields nearby, I didn’t live on a farm, and my father knew little and cared less about the natural world.

Harrison writes of fishing with his father when he (young Jim) was in the grip of a melancholy time: “He had an uncanny ability to identify weeds, flowers, bushes by smell, and he suddenly said that curiosity will get you through hard times when nothing else.”

 Still, my small town childhood made some moments Harrison recounts familiar and emotionally resonant, as his “tearful pleasure” on a trip to New York, hearing live classical music for the first time in Washington Square, and when again in New York at the age of nineteen, he saw his first actual painting by a great artist (Modigliani), “my eyes brimmed.”

 He was a 4-H boy, and had an adolescent period of extreme Christianity, which involved memorizing large chunks of the King James Bible for contests, a possible key to his prose style. But the major event of his childhood was an accident that left him blind in one eye.

 A sensory disability tends to make the sensitive even more inward, but I believe there are some other little understood effects. I’ve only recently begun to realize how important my own one-ear deafness has been in my relationship to the world. For instance, the natural assumption is that a disability in one of the senses shifts emphasis to the others, as in the cliché of the blind person with extraordinary hearing. But I’ve come to believe a more accurate way to put it is that one focuses all the other senses on the work of the less able one. In my own case, I realize that I don’t “see better” because I’m half-deaf; it’s more that I hear partly with my eyes. And I don’t mean lip-reading, but a more generalized function of pouring visual information into making sense of the world in sound.

Also the quality of attention in the sense in question can become more acute, partly because there’s a subconscious process of filling in the gaps to make sense of the sense data. In my own case I can illustrate the concept with this example: I play a game of identifying the voices of actors in situations where they aren’t seen, mostly in “voice-overs” for TV commercials and documentaries. I am very good at this, even with relatively obscure actors, provided I have seen them as well as heard them in some earlier movies or TV shows. And when I remember who they are, it’s because in my mind I see their faces, and only then recall their names (if I can remember their names at all---a flaw in my ability to prove this.)

 So to me, that Harrison excels at visual description is not paradoxical. I’m sure his hearing and other senses (perhaps he too can identify weeds by smell) contribute to what he sees. It may also be why he has such visually rich dreams and “visions,” as some amazing ones he describes in this book. Not only is his brain assembling visual information from all his senses, but it works hard in doing so. That might also contribute to a feedback of visual imagery in dreams and visions.

 An event that haunted his life occurred when he was 25: his father and beloved sister waited around for him to decide whether he would go with them. He stayed home. A drunken driver hit their car, and killed them both. In this book he touches upon some of the ways this continued to affect him, and it likely adds a certain seriousness, skepticism, melancholy and sense of tragedy to his work. In any case, it is one of those companions that is always there, and often noticed.

 But by then he was happily married, and wondrously it was a marriage that lasted, even through periods of his obliquely described bad behavior. It grounded him in many ways. So his life as a writer, while it included Hollywood and wild times in Key West, also included home and children, usually in modest circumstances.

 My response to this life, as to his success as a novelist, which was one of my most persistent unrealized dream for my life, is the same mixture I feel when I see such a story in a movie, or even on something as vulgar as an awards show: a certain envy, but also a gratitude that at least it happened to somebody, and I can share in it for a moment vicariously. And as I stubbornly if possibly erroneously maintain, a vicarious joy is better than no joy at all.

 Harrison’s life took him to several cities and to academe. In particular he spent some time in Cambridge, Mass., where I had lived, and even though we knew some of the same places, it was at different times. I think I just missed the clubby poetry scene at Grolier’s bookstore, though maybe it was my own diffidence and impatience. Harrison knew the poet Denise Levertov, and had the same high opinion of her as a person that I did, having met her when she spent several days at my college. Later I discovered that when she was living in the Boston area she was good friends with a young poet, who had been among the last group of previous tenants of my apartment in unfashionable East Cambridge. She had been there often, as she confirmed in a postcard, our last communication as it turned out.

 Our respective experiences with other people we knew in common tells more about our respective writing careers. My only memory of the justifiably revered publisher Sam Lawrence (who published Kurt Vonnegut, among others) was a very brief meeting. I don’t even remember sitting down—just the sight of this tall, impressive, kind man, standing and smiling, a roaring fire in his fireplace behind him.

 Sam Lawrence (then at Delacorte) published Harrison’s first collection of novellas, that other publishers wouldn’t touch because nobody would buy it. It was titled Legends of the Fall, and contained that novella, which soon made Harrison famous and rich. The agent who did that deal was Bob Datilla. I met Bob once as well, a somewhat longer meeting. I had a list of ideas for magazine stories, and he suggested magazines to try with each of them, except one, which he said would not sell. I think we talked about book possibilities, but in any event he essentially agreed to represent me.

 Some time later he called me, and said he’d changed his mind. The idea he said wouldn’t work was about the malling of America, which became an article that took up nearly an entire issue of a magazine, and then my first (and so far only) book. Years later, I sent him a letter and a book proposal. He never answered the letter, and sent the proposal back with a huge NO in black defacing it. Needless to say, Bob Datilla is not my favorite agent, even though that’s currently a null set in any case. But he has been Harrison’s agent and a close friend for his entire career.

 The part of this book that’s newest in terms of what Harrison has written in earlier nonfiction and talked about in interviews is his recounting of his experiences in Hollywood. As elsewhere, there’s funny stuff here, and the image of Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Sean Connery with Harrison’s barbecue sauce dripping on their white suits is wondrous and hilarious cinema of the mind.

 Harrison worked in Hollywood (without being a resident) writing screenplays. He no longer does that, so even when he describes the venality of the movie business, he does so from a distance, taking into consideration his own self-dramatization and ego.

 Hollywood is just the template for what happens in publishing and related fields these days. So for those who aren’t acquainted with the extreme changes of fortune of an ego-ridden and whim-based industry, some of what happened to Harrison will seem exceptional. Of course, it’s extreme when it happens to you, and for those of us who’ve had similar experiences, there is a certain awe at the magnitude, but a feeling of recognition and solidarity.

 Because at one point, Harrison’s “Legends of the Fall” was slated to be directed by one of the cinema’s all time legendary directors, David Lean, and his novella “Revenge” was scheduled to be directed by another such legend, John Huston. Both movies were to be made by Warners, until the head of the studio retired, and the new regime axed both projects.

 Though he made a lot of money there, few of Harrison’s projects became movies. Still, he got to visit many Indian reservations to research a script on photographer Edward Curtis for director Taylor Hackford, and a sense-boggling trip to Rio for a Lou Adler project. Even a script that he came up with that did get made was a less than happy experience, and a less than good movie: “Wolf” with Jack Nicholson.

 He basically liked the movie version of Legends of the Fall, though he despised the TV movie made from his novel Dalva. He wonders why a movie should be so awful, since “It often seems quite inscrutable because it takes essentially the same energy to make a bad film as a good one,” paraphrasing, perhaps unconsciously, director Francois Truffaut.

 Harrison’s involvement with Hollywood figures began before he’d written his first screenplay. His only long-time novelist friend, Tom McGuane, was first to get tapped by Hollywood, and it was by visiting McGuane on a shoot that Harrison met Jack Nicholson, who then read some of his work, and eventually financed a year of Harrison’s writing when he was in dire financial straits, for a small consideration on any film that might ensue. The project was, of course, “Legends of the Fall,” not only Harrison’s most famous work, but his most talismanic.

 I felt reassured in my own judgments from a distance (or from brief encounters as an interviewer or observer) by Harrison’s generous assessment of some big name Hollywood actors and directors. He got beyond the idol worship and the cynicism to the intelligence and humanity of complex and talented people.

 These personal asides are meant to indicate the kind of interaction between my experience and what I was reading that is part of the experience of every reader. Others would notice and pick out different parts of this book.

 As for direct comment on his work, Harrison is conflicted and sparse. He does say that his novel Warlock is “the only book I’ve ever written that I loathe,” though he doesn’t say why. He refers to moments (when he finished The Road Home) and circumstances, but there is little about how he came to choose a subject (with one exception) or his approach, or methods, etc.

 That one exception is Legends of the Fall, but only that it arose from reading journals of the real William Ludlow (the father, played in the movie by Anthony Hopkins), who was his wife’s grandmother’s father. But there is other information in this memoir that links aspects of his life and thought to his fiction, in content and style. Readers may find it adds interest and texture to reading the fiction, perhaps occasionally illuminating something they find otherwise puzzling.

The English Major by Jim Harrison

I read his 1998 novel Coming Home as a culmination of Harrison's writing until then, but he was far from finished.  He published the novels True North (2004) and Returning to Earth (2007); novella collections The Beast God Forgot to Invent (2000) and The Summer He Didn't Die (2005.)  Then came this novel in 2008, which I reviewed for a weekly newspaper on the North Coast of California where I live--hence the emphasis on his protagonist's Eureka revelations--his Eureka! moments in Eureka.

The English Major
 By Jim Harrison
 Grove Press

 Jim Harrison is known as a master of the novella—his most famous work is probably "Legends of the Fall"—but he’s also written what I regard as an American epic with the 800+ pages of the interlaced novels, Dalva and The Road Home. This new one is an ordinary-sized novel, a first person narration on the comic side. It’s got the eccentric sentences and preoccupations that Harrison fans will recognize: sex, food, memory, siblings, dogs, landscape and the road, but with one more added: age.

 At the age of 60, Cliff is hanging on the edge of his old life, his last day on his farm in Michigan that his wife has sold for redevelopment, after divorcing him. Cliff hits the road, immediately hooking up with a hot ex-student from his early teaching days, the fortysomething Maybelle. Good luck, he observes, is a mixed blessing. “Forty-five years of sex fantasies come true and I’m thinking I wish I could go fishing.”

 While Cliff takes in landscapes he’s never seen, Maybelle stares at her cell phone searching for a signal. After Maybelle disembarks in Minnesota, Cliff makes his way to the North Coast from Oregon, on his way to visit his gay, show-business son in San Francisco.

It’s in Eureka that at age 60 he sees the Pacific Ocean for the first time. “The Pacific Ocean was more than I bargained for. At first I thought I might have a heart attack…I spent the next day and a half between Eureka and San Francisco hugging the coast as closely as I could and stopping a couple of dozen times for yet another look. The ocean became the best smell of my life.”

 As he approached Eureka, Cliff came up with the eccentric project that would eventually center him again: he would rename the 50 states and the birds of America. On the road he struggles to find the self that he’d left behind to become a serious farmer—the nimble-minded English major whose thoughts and feelings weren’t restricted to his fruit trees and birthing cows.  Yet it’s clear from his alienation from the cell phone world, as well as his deep ties to the land and farm animals that he’s also being pulled back.

 So will he change his life completely, perhaps devote himself to literary pursuits? Or will he reject change and revert?  Well, there’s no either/or for Cliff, or in this gentle, funny novel that should entertain all readers, but inevitably will have particular meaning for those of Cliff’s age—and Jim Harrison’s.

 For awhile, Harrison’s novels were structured as contrapuntal ruminations by at least a couple of characters. This one has but one voice, although the contrapuntal part is furnished by Cliff’s sudden memories versus what he’s actually going through or observing (mostly observing) at the time. The language is a bit simpler, especially in the beginning. This novel does not start well, but once it gets rolling, it takes you along.

 The basic style is the same, though. Harrison’s paragraphs are cascades of sentences that apparently have little to do with each other, although appearances can be deceiving.  His protagonists are often more comfortable in an American past that may or may not have existed, and he gives different reasons for this, and for their sometimes formal diction.

 In this novel, Cliff is navigating between two women, who both represent troublesome aspects of modern life: besides his cell-addicted, psychobabbling girlfriend, he’s rebounding from his real estate dealing, upper middle class wannabe wife. The conflict between Cliff’s age and his sexual desires and wandering eye provide discomfiting comedy that other oldsters may identify with.

 But the poignancy that stays with me comes from scenes like leaning for mutual support against a birthing cow he’s stayed with all night, or the photos he takes on the road, which are exclusively of various kinds of cattle. The sensual world is where Cliff lives, and reconciling it with the abstract demands and irrational insults of modern life seems to me to be the undercurrent common to a lot of his writing.

The Great Leader by Jim Harrison

The Great Leader (2011)
 By Jim Harrison
Grove Press

Jim Harrison has written a police procedural? The author of historical family sagas like "Legends of the Fall", whose last novel was entitled The English Major?

Like that one, this new novel is about a solitary man in his 60s dealing with his changing life, but here he’s a retiring detective obsessed with one last case, and this gives the personal journey a shape along with the momentum of the detective story.  Moreover, Harrison has created a credible character in Upper Michigan police detective Sunderson, with original qualities for a police procedural.

 Sunderson wants to finally nail the Great Leader of a religious cult who preys upon underage teenage girls, sexually and financially. Sunderson understands the sexual temptation all too well, thanks to his foxy young neighbor Mona, especially when Mona seems to invite his advances. But he resists, and their relationship is one of several that becomes complicated, funny, surprising and very, very human. Think Larry McMurtry meets Raymond Chandler, for starters.

 The police detective whose wife has left him is a genre (and especially TV) cliche, but for once there’s a reason: Sunderson could not help anticipating the worst (“If you’re a cop long enough even songbirds are under suspicion”) which was too relentlessly depressing for his wife, Diane, who has remarried, but reenters the story halfway through.

 More typical of Harrison, Sunderson’s best friend is Native American, and the detective (a former history major) feels the weight of the attempted genocide of whole peoples, as well as their land. (So there’s a certain poetry in the ending, which I will not give away.)

 Like anyone his age, Sunderson is also haunted by regret, yet he is sweating his way through a transition to new possibilities afforded by retirement. The subtleties of that process track the search for the cult leader. It’s one of several correspondences that make this a shapely novel.  It fulfills the expectations of the detective genre and of the novel form, which includes novelty. Both stories have vivid endings.

 Meanwhile there are the meditations on contemporary life expected in a Harrison novel, this time informally emphasizing the interrelationship of sex, money and religion. Harrison is really good at presenting a character in the rough, more comfortable in nature, but whose mind is active and alive.

 Along the way there’s Harrison’s unique writing: paragraphs that read like a random collection of non sequiters with bizarre (or no) punctuation, that keep you off balance for the explosive zingers that pop off the page.

 A bit of inside baseball, and maybe an inside joke: Sunderson mentions reading a book by poet Gary Snyder, and in the real world there’s a video on sale of old friends Snyder and Harrison talking (The Etiquette of Freedom) But that doesn’t stop Harrison from giving chunks of Snyder’s life (his college, his first book) to this novel’s villain.

Brown Dog by Jim Harrison

This review of Brown Dog originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.
In re-reading it, and noting that the first sentence of the Brown Dog saga was “Just before dark at the bottom of the sea I found the Indian,” I now recall that the title of Harrison's 1991 collection of non-fiction was Just Before Dark.

BROWN DOG (2013)
by Jim Harrison
Grove Press; 522 pages

Jim Harrison not only achieved fame with “Legends of the Fall” in 1979, he also revived a fictional form. At about 80 pages, it was longer than a story and shorter than a novel, and therefore an almost extinct species in mainstream fiction called a novella. It appeared in book form with two other novellas, the first of six such Harrison collections.

 All of these novellas were stand-alone narratives, with one exception. One tale in each of the five collections after Legends of the Fall was about an increasingly popular character called Brown Dog. Now this volume collects all the Brown Dog novellas plus a new one that carries forward and in some ways caps the series.

 Brown Dog fans have been waiting for this, and now they can share with other readers the rare if not unique experience of a chronological narrative written and published over some twenty years.

When Brown Dog first appeared in the collection The Woman Lit By Fireflies in 1990, Harrison suggested to an interviewer that it was his attempt to write something comic for a change.  But after the character’s second tale (in 1994’s Julip) he told other interviewers that there would be at least one more, mentioning both the picaresque tradition and the serial narrative.

The ultimate result is a sequential series of six tales that at a certain point engaged Harrison’s skills as a novelist, so that there are mysteries gradually unraveled (though some remain) and a main character who is not quite the same at the end.

 “Just before dark at the bottom of the sea I found the Indian.” With that provocative opening sentence, the first Brown Dog misadventures begin. They involve salvaging a dead Indian in full regalia preserved in the cold deep waters of Lake Superior, and the struggle over ancient burial grounds with some wily and ambitious young anthropologists that drives the narrative through the next novella as well.

 Brown Dog—otherwise known as B.D.—is 47 when we meet him. He grew up in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan near an Indian reservation. He still lives nearby. An Indian girl gave him his name because as a lovestruck youth he was always hanging around like a dog. He doesn’t remember his parents and doubts that he is Indian (a question that gradually gets answered) but when a bosomy 24 year-old anthropologist shows up at the local bar, he’s not averse to pretending.

 His appetites, particularly for sex, often get him in trouble and lead to numerous episodes of ribaldry, but he is also deeply and happily grounded in the natural world of woods and water. His greatest ambition is to fish as much as possible.

 “Westward Ho” finds B.D. on the run from the law with a dubious Indian activist in Hollywood. To this point the novellas are primarily picaresque adventures, suggesting a rural American Tom Jones, or perhaps more appropriately, certain Native American tales about the trickster figures of Coyote or Raven.

 But with The Summer He Didn’t Die, the series—and this book—develops narrative direction and urgency, as B.D. tries to save his young stepdaughter, “a woodland creature” with a form of fetal alcohol syndrome, from a sterile state institution.

 After further adventures in Canada and Montana, B.D. is back home in the last and previously unpublished tale. A little older and a biological father with a contemporary twist, he feels the need for family and to make peace with his unknown past. At last he learns his parentage, with symmetries on several levels and a connection to at least one other Harrison fiction.

 Though a single narrative voice doesn’t emerge until at least a third of the way through the series, there’s no mistaking Harrison’s signature style. His paragraphs are like waterfalls of musically balanced sentences that don’t always relate in obvious ways. Observation, flashes of memory and epigram tumble together to achieve both bursts of illuminating surprise and a kind of mesmerizing momentum.

 As a book, Brown Dog is rich in character and incident, rude humor and melancholy. It is both heartfelt and ruefully real. It’s unusual and welcome in the number and variety of characters living on the geographic and economic margins, including educated small town professionals. Whether helplessly cruel or basically goodhearted, they all struggle with the often surpassing power of their impulses.

 B.D. himself emerges as a singular character, at once unworldly and self-aware, wounded and grounded, “virtually the opposite of anything the culture thought was acceptable” with a sense of wonder less engaged by billions of stars in the night sky than “the billions of green buds in thousands of acres of trees surrounding him” as he sits motionless on a tree stump in “a state much envied by the ancients.”