In contemporary fiction there is no writer who is more associated with the novella than Jim Harrison. Since 1979 he has produced five volumes of them, LEGENDS OF THE FALL being the most well-known. The two novellas that comprise his sixth collection, THE RIVER SWIMMER, reveal his enduring skill at this challenging form. Harrison delivers two absorbing studies of men at the opposite ends of adult life, noteworthy both for an absence of illusion and a sympathy that never slips into sentimentality. The stories revisit some of Harrison’s habitual concerns --- the world of nature, Native American myth, the sensual pleasures of food and the persistence of sexual desire --- in his characteristically rugged and entertaining style.
The volume takes its title from the shorter of the two entries, but it’s the first, “The Land of Unlikeness,” that offers the more subtle portrait. Clive is a 60-year-old man whose life is in full meltdown. His modest stock portfolio has been battered in the Great Recession, and he’s estranged from his daughter. After he is put on a three-month leave by his Ivy League university “for an unfortunate incident that had involved minimal but disastrous self-defense,” he returns for the first time in three years to the northern Michigan farm where he was raised, to care for his elderly but still vital (if semiblind) mother so his younger sister can leave on an extended European trip. “Teaching had been a livelihood,” he concludes, “but a farm was a life.”
"Harrison delivers two absorbing studies of men at the opposite ends of adult life, noteworthy both for an absence of illusion and a sympathy that never slips into sentimentality."
After abandoning painting 20 years earlier at the time he divorced, Clive’s primary occupation beyond his teaching has involved appraising American art for wealthy collectors. He “was feeling a deep slippage in his life” that came from “the sense that there was no traction for the future in his current life.” But now that he has returned home, he is inspired to take up the paintbrush again, especially so when he encounters Laurette, a woman who had spurned his advances some 40 years earlier. The prospect of painting a partially nude portrait of her clearly stimulates both of them.
Though their occupations couldn’t be more dissimilar, Clive shares some traits with Simon Sunderson, the retired detective protagonist of Harrison’s most recent novel, THE GREAT LEADER. While their shared world weariness hasn’t lifted by more than a few inches, by the story’s end there is still a sense that both men have emerged from their travails stronger and with a fresh perspective on the final years of their lives.
Just when his recent work threatens to create the impression that Harrison is concerned only with the angst of men in late middle age, he delivers a story with a much younger protagonist. Thad is a 17-year-old northern Michigan farm boy whose nature is summed up in a single sentence: “If there was a body of swimmable water nearby he would enter it.” So passionate is he about his attachment to water that, early in the story, he swims across Lake Michigan from Muskegon to Chicago.
“The River Swimmer” features more drama than its companion tale, including a pair of savage beatings inflicted by a car dealer known ironically as “Friendly Frank,” who just happens to be the father of Thad’s girlfriend, and a disastrous boating accident. When Thad takes up with a young woman named Emily, the daughter of a wealthy Chicago businessman, Harrison uses the opportunity to explore questions of class and the divide between rural and urban life in America. Native American legend enters in the form of a character named Tooth, who introduces Thad to the myth of the water babies, “infant water spirits who when they died on earth…lived in water to keep away from people who were dangerous,” and who make recurring appearances in the story.
At times the novellas play off each other, as elements of “The Land of Unlikeness” echo in “The River Swimmer.” Clive’s mother is an avid birdwatcher (their early morning excursions quickly become a part of his daily routine). Thad “loved to read about the inconceivability of some bird migrations.” He admits to Emily that he was “thinking of learning to be a painter,” even if it’s never apparent he’ll act on that inclination. Like Clive, by the end of the story Thad has gained at least some insight into his true character.
Though he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down, at age 75 and unlike some of his protagonists, Jim Harrison can look back with satisfaction over an impressive body of work. He writes with an ease and assurance characteristic of an author who is writing to please himself. Happily, in the process, he continues to please us as well.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on February 15, 2013