TRUE NORTH, Jim Harrison's new coming-of-age novel, is set in
Michigan's Upper Peninsula, a place where Harrison has lived for
many years. Looking at his photograph on the book's back cover ---
the contours in his cheeks, the grooves around the eyes, the
weathered chin --- one sees a living testament to the Upper
Peninsula's punishing winters and windswept climate. Daily life can
be a struggle in the wooded pockets of the Upper Peninsula, but for
a family ripped apart by shame and scandal, the harsh climate isn't
the half of it.
Harrison's naïve, idealistic hero, David Burkett, is
determined to make right his ancestors' tradition of abusing for
profit the Upper Peninsula's glorious forests and the hardscrabble
locals working in the timber trade. David makes it his life's work
to research and write a family history documenting the evils of his
grandfather and much-loathed father. The problem is that this good
vs. evil setup is too convenient. David's father is an alcoholic.
He's a vile man who ignores his children and heaps mental abuse on
his fragile wife. He is also a pedophile, a fact that the reader is
reminded of on too many occasions --- with at least one in
nauseating detail. Given this set of facts, where else can the
reader go? But siding with David has its own set of problems.
David does many of the soap opera-y things you'd expect of a young
"scion" on a warpath. He rejects Yale (his father's alma mater) for
Michigan State. He's desperate to comfort those his father has
mistreated. David takes drugs, and he's terminally focused on sex.
Harrison dwells too much on this latter point. As an adolescent
maturing into adulthood in the 1960s, David's preoccupation with
sex makes sense. But as he grows and takes on the larger struggle
of redeeming his family's name, the sexual angles don't recede into
the background where they belong. The story loses focus as David
goes from one sexual conquest to the next. Harrison treats David's
women with great care --- none are cardboard cutouts. However, they
are all --- to varying degrees --- distractions along the way to
David's goal of understanding his family's role in the destruction
of his beloved Upper Peninsula.
Harrison's plain, stripped down prose evokes an authentic local
flavor. And he captures a mood and atmosphere that takes the reader
right into the action. In addition, Harrison portrays a winning
ensemble cast, chief among them are David's sister, Cynthia, and
his uncle Fred. These characters are typical of the many feisty,
no-nonsense Midwesterners who populate TRUE NORTH. But the novel
wobbles along because, despite Harrison's loftier ambitions, the
book is, in essence, a character study of how a young man pursues
and reconciles generational demons. The book is too thin on plot
and story to justify its 385 pages, and readers will tire as
Harrison plods along without really going anywhere.
Reviewed by Andrew Musicus on January 23, 2011