After 12 books of fiction, 10 books of poetry, two books of essays, a memoir and a children’s book, it hardly seems possible anymore, for readers casual or studied, to presume to critique Jim Harrison’s work. Writing, at the level Harrison is practicing it, is a gift, not for looking in the mouth, and all an attentive reader can reasonably attempt at this point is to say thanks.
The two novellas here, and one fictionalized memoir-type bit at the end, are fond in common of garter snakes, morel mushrooms and pork sandwiches, each of which makes at least one appearance in each of the book’s three parts. The repeat appearances don’t read the least bit gimmicky, but they do root these distinct fictions in an earthy common ground. And that’s a good thing, because Harrison has become such a good and true mimic of such a breadth of character that it might otherwise be tempting to think the occupants of these unrelated stories from wholly different worlds entirely. That’s how easily, almost casually, Harrison inhabits his voices without hijacking them.
The title story is about Brown Dog, a half-breed former pulp logger in Michigan’s hard-luck Upper Peninsula, and opens with a moan: “What is life that I must get teeth pulled?” The answer is a heroically pedestrian mess of lust and circumstance, complicated by fetal alcohol syndrome, possibly situational lesbianism and the goddamned government. The fact that life also encompasses the possibility of food, sex and family ultimately proves it worthwhile, despite the nuisance of bad choppers.
When a marriage of legal convenience appoints Brown Dog the unprepared guardian of damaged young Berry, and when the state subsequently decides to take her away, B.D. employs Canadian connections to spirit her across the border. All the while he’s screwing the local dentist and rutting and/or falling for a social worker who may or may not end up making love to him—even Harrison’s un-loveliest women “make love”—in an attempt to conceive her own loneliness-averting child.
The novella ends, problem unresolved and perhaps about to get drastically more complicated, when Berry comes to Brown Dog, sick on the ferry across Lake Superior, and tries to help him to his feet.
It’s a testament to Harrison’s skill as much as to his age and longevity that he can convincingly write to a moral—can in fact write morally—without sounding like a clown. This story’s lesson, hiding in its title, is survival—that which allows it and that which makes it worthwhile, and Harrison is sufficiently light-handed in the telling that what you remember is the comic sexual encounters in the dentist’s chair and the guilelessly illegal fishing. The story makes a reader greedy, makes you wish Harrison would write another one just like it tomorrow.
Instead, Harrison follows “The Summer He Didn’t Die” with “Republican Wives,” a novella in three parts, each told from the point of view of one of three middle-aged former college sorority sisters unsatisfied in their marriages, each of whom at some point has indulged an affair with the same man, Daryl, a writer and philanderer. One woman, Martha, finally tries and fails to kill Daryl after he distributes compromising photos of the three to their unaware Republican husbands. When Daryl doesn’t die, Martha flees to Mexico, where her friends meet her to commiserate. At a trial in Houston the whole thing is swept under the rug with a payoff to Daryl, which will fund his novel-writing fling in Paris.
These are all shallow, unappealing characters, freighted with just enough self-awareness of their own shortcomings to compound their disagreeability with plausibility. Harrison knows these people as well as he knows Brown Dog, but he seems to neither like nor dislike them. “Republican Wives” ends in a passing cab, on the way to an airport, no moral in sight—just the sense that you’ve briefly lived someone else’s life, experienced their smug self-regard and panic.
The book-ending “Tracking” seems actually to be memoir cast as fiction (“he” instead of “I”)—a triptych of the author’s life and career briefly but fully sketched on 30-page panels: romantic youth, struggling adult, and (somewhat more) meditative elder.
It’s interesting that Harrison casts this bit as fiction, as if maybe even autobiography is just a story we tell ourselves; as if even memoir is mostly made up, envisioned and executed in retrospect.
In any case, there’s no moral at the end, just a semi-Zen bit of self-consideration as he recounts his (character’s) career as an artist and concludes, “Some of his books would last or not. He’d never know, and deep in the night with My Book House”—a gift from his daughter—“on his lap it wasn’t an interesting question.”
True, it’s easy to imagine literary parlor games getting old at Harrison’s age—approaching 70—but at least this one has an easy answer: some of his books will certainly last, and this one’s no exception, because you could quote from The Summer He Didn’t Die until you’d shouted it complete and never come across an untrue word, fictional or otherwise.