Sink or swim 

Harrison’s novellas detail two men on the verge

Jim Harrison’s last novel, The Great Leader, featured a retired, divorced cop in Michigan on a mission to track down a sexually deviant cult leader while simultaneously battling his own issues with faith, lust and power. While I appreciated the detail and intelligence of the story, I was a little underwhelmed by the prose. It seemed clunky and without art, but perhaps that’s what it takes to get into the mind of an atheist cop.

Harrison’s latest collection is a more complete accomplishment. It’s a slim volume containing two novellas, The Land of Unlikeness and The River Swimmer. Like his previous work, they’re told with memories, thoughts and impressions from the past seamlessly interwoven into the present action of the story. The stories are smart and enjoyable as ever, but this time the matter-of-fact sentences are imbued with electricity. You get the feeling there’s something to be learned by these characters’ experiences, and with such crisp prose, the lessons hit home. For example: “He had spent a great deal of time pondering suicide because of the pain and the fact that his life was in shambles.” Think of the scaffolding it takes to make a sentence like that ring true without it being trite or overly simplistic.

The Land of Unlikeliness begins: “Clive awoke before dawn in a motel in Ypsilanti, Michigan, thinking that it was altogether possible that every woman in the world was married to the wrong man.” So right away we know we’re dealing with a lonely divorcé from Michigan who thinks too much. In the present action, 60-year-old Clive has left his cosmopolitan life as an art critic in order to take care of his ailing mother in Michigan. Childhood bedrooms and landscapes lend themselves to nostalgia. Clive thinks back on high school crushes, on eschewing the farm life in order to become a painter, a doomed marriage, the decision to abandon painting and the accident that ended his career as an art critic. There are basic questions put forward as to what it means to be an artist—how people coming back to their art late in life might find themselves with nothing to lose, and from that freedom, a great deal to gain.

University of Montana professor David Gates wrote a book in the early ’90s called Jernigan about an alcoholic painter. Gates once talked about the difficulty authors have in writing convincingly about other careers, since so often writers are doomed with a singular obsession toward writing. Gates said of his characters with jobs as musicians, marketers, painters, and so on: “But really, they’re all fucking writers.” Harrison doesn’t seem to have this problem, or if he does, he solves it by allowing his painter to dabble in journal writing and by what I can only assume is a lot of diligent research. When he talks about the artist’s struggle with immortality, I believe him, and it’s true when Clive muses: “There was an obvious vulgarity to nearly all livelihoods that was disarming.”

It’s a curious choice to put the title novella second in the collection, firstly because Thad, the narrator of The River Swimmer, is not yet out of high school; he stands at the precipice of his life, so that the stories, while disconnected, take on a reverse chronology. Secondly, the action of the story moves with great speed. Told in this order, it comes as a delicious reward for having spent the time in meditation with the aging artist.

This might be superficial, but for me, The River Swimmer invites a comparison to John Cheever’s short story, “The Swimmer.” Both feature slightly implausible tales of men who can’t stay out of water. Cheever’s swimmer is a ruined drinker who jumps from one affluent friend’s pool to the next, blind to the community’s pity and ridicule. At his moment of enlightenment, he’s looking back on a life already ruined. Harrison’s swimmer has his whole life ahead of him, two girls to choose from, a tremendous physical ability to cash in on and magic may exist. In The River Swimmer, Harrison hangs Thad’s destiny from a thin thread and then makes us watch as it dangles perilously.

Taken as a whole, Harrison’s latest collection shows us through sharp prose what freedom looks like and how two men in different stages of life manage to embrace what they’ve discovered.

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