Jim Harrison's Brown Dog is a collection of five novellas—four previously published, one not. Together, they form a funny account of the kind of man a whole lot of American men might wish to be: self-sufficient, virile, immune to popular culture and a damned good fisherman.
On the other hand, the eponymous character of all five novellas is also dirt-poor and consumes alcohol the way most people consume water. Brown Dog never takes a part-time job without calculating its equivalent worth in six-packs. Lesser writers might make that kind of thing—playing poverty and drunkenness for laughs—seem kind of false and patronizing. But Harrison gives his character such an incisive and deadpan outlook, it's easy to ignore a misgiving or two. One reviewer has compared the character to Huck Finn; the highest compliment I can pay this book is to say that's not too much of an exaggeration. Like Huck, B.D. holds his tarnished mirror up to America and lets the reflection speak for itself.
While these five stories were written over two decades, together they read like one full novel. Repackaging them like this may be good financially for Harrison, but it also makes the book greater than the sum of its parts. As each novella gives way to the next, Brown Dog becomes more than a rustic clown. He actually experiences personal growth (gulp) despite his best efforts to avoid it. By the end, it's even poignant.
In the beginning, Brown Dog is an itinerant salvage diver who lives in deer hunting cabins in exchange for repairs. His only burden is the guilt that once, in a "pussy trance," he revealed the location of an Indian burial ground to his anthropologist girlfriend Shelley. Brown Dog is pretty sure he has some Indian blood, but the exact amount has never been made clear to him. By the last novella, "He Dog," he has, at 50, become a partially fledged family man with a wife and kids and a place of his own.
While Harrison does invest Brown Dog's poverty with a certain nobility, he does it with a wink. He seems well aware that poverty can pay pretty well to those who write about it. In "The Summer He Didn't Die," B.D. encounters a writer named Bob, who covers wars and picturesque squalor for magazines like National Geographic. Bob offers B.D. $500 "if you'll drive me around for two days to see the poor."
B.D. takes the job, but Bob can't find anybody pathetic enough or Indian enough to match the story he's already narrating into his recorder. Finally, Bob abandons the project to take a $50,000 assignment elsewhere.
A cynic might wonder what dirt-poor Brown Dog would think of his creator, a big-shot writer with a nice home in Montana and one in Michigan. But one of the appealing things about this character is that he is not given to class envy or bitterness. Life's obstacles are more puzzling than personal. He remarks on them without judgment or irony—just a sharp eye for detail.
The central conflict of the book is the extent to which Brown Dog's freedom can survive as his various relationships take root. But there are other threads, each compelling enough to keep you turning the pages. First there is the well-preserved body of an Indian in full regalia, 70 feet below the surface of Lake Superior. Brown Dog discovers the body while salvage diving and decides to, well, salvage it. Complications ensue. The identity of the Indian is a mystery that isn't fully solved until much later.
Another recurring theme is Brown Dog's relationship with his adopted children. Their violent, alcoholic mother was one of B.D.'s first flames, but she holds him in contempt. Her son, Red, is a math genius and her daughter, Berry, is a victim of fetal-alcohol syndrome who communicates mostly in eerily accurate bird calls. The identity of the father is unclear.
When the mother is sent to prison for attacking a police officer, B.D. takes on their upbringing. The state of Michigan forbids the arrangement and orders that Berry be sent instead to a state facility in Lansing. When B.D. flees with the girl to Canada, it's part of an odyssey that also takes him to the urban wilderness of Los Angeles and the high desert of eastern Montana. These travels, letting us view the larger world through Brown Dog's unjaded eyes, account for many of the book's best passages.
Finally, there is Brown Dog's love for his social worker, Gretchen. She's beautiful, intelligent and, as B.D. discovers to his dismay, "a devout lesbian." She cares about Brown Dog, but only as a committed liberal can care for a committed homeless person. Undaunted by the concept of sexual orientation, he goes to great lengths to find some way to make it work.
Whether or not you're a fan of Harrison's other work, the character of Brown Dog is probably somebody you'll want to meet. If you already know B.D., you'll find this collection works as a strong novel in its own right. I recommend it highly.