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Brown Dog: Novellas

Review

Brown Dog: Novellas

For the December 1, 2013, issue of the New York Times Travel section, author Jim Harrison wrote of his experience in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the central location of BROWN DOG, a collection of his novellas being published by Grove Press. In the essay, Harrison explains his motivation for creating the book’s titular character: “I wanted to create a totally free man, which means he is poor but doesn’t care.”

The description is apt. The collection’s six novellas follow the misadventures of Brown Dog (B.D. for short), a half-brained, half-Chippewa drifter and perpetual horn dog eking out a living while hopping from one cabin to the next in the U.P.’s frigid expanse of forests, lakes and rivers. B.D.’s desires are simple: food and booze in the belly, a woman beside him, and the sights and sounds of nature never far from reach.

The upside of such plain aspirations would seem to be easy contentment, but for the ever-luckless Brown Dog, things don’t work out so effortlessly --- work (most often as a pulp cutter) is sporadic and dangerous, love interests fickle or calculating or just plain mean. For a man of sharper mind, the shenanigans waiting around every corner might be easier to avoid. But for B.D., described by a local Chippewa conman and faux-activist as a “simpleminded fool who hadn’t the sense to do anything to his own advantage,” avoiding trouble just isn’t in the cards.

"There’s much to be said for Harrison’s prose, which in many ways mirrors the northern landscape: hard-edged and not too showy, yet gorgeously attentive in its detailing of place (and of home-cooked meals) and exuberant in recounting the travails of the titular character."

Yet to entirely dismiss B.D. as a fool is to miss his true wisdom. A daydreamer with no ambitions of typical American success, his musings are filled with childlike wisdom. “Imagine yourself lying in bed sleeping and dreaming of things people dream of, say fish, death, being attacked, diving to the bottom of the ocean, the world exploding, the underside of trees, screwing women or men without faces, that sort of thing. It makes the world seem blurred and huge,” he notes, in an early reflection. “Then you wake up and you’re just B.D. in a ten-dollar war surplus sleeping bag in a cold cabin. The first step is to pee and make coffee, which I can deal with, and after that what happens is not in firm hands."

There’s much to be said for Harrison’s prose, which in many ways mirrors the northern landscape: hard-edged and not too showy, yet gorgeously attentive in its detailing of place (and of home-cooked meals) and exuberant in recounting the travails of the titular character. Descriptions of the vast supporting cast are many and colorful, and while a few characters may feel a bit one-note, this seems to stem more from Brown Dog’s sublime unawareness and non-analytical thought processes rather than any fault of the writer. Harrison’s willingness to play with narrative modes --- though the bulk of the book uses a free indirect style, B.D. occasionally chimes in with a jovially coarse first person --- proves fruitful, allowing the reader a more multifaceted understanding of how this hapless hero thinks.

The novellas were written over a span of more than 20 years, and occasionally this is evident: minor details in B.D’s past or his preferences sometimes change slightly from one novella to the next, and the long string of unlucky encounters may strike some as repetitive. The plot, too, can be meandering, but so is Brown Dog, and in a way therein lies the point: his attitude, though not strictly devil-may-care, is definitively set in the present moment. He does not plan, nor does he think ahead, but his endless hunger for human experience keeps him putting one foot in front of the other all the same.

It is this, perhaps, that causes these six pieces to read not so much as individual works but as bits of a picaresque. The plots of each novella remain distinct, but an overarching narrative unites them all in the chronicling of a beautifully bizarre life that ends with “He Dog,” the only new work in this collection --- a recently penned conclusion that finally provides the dopey and often directionless B.D. with something akin to a new perspective.

Reviewed by John Maher (jhm1020@gmail.com) on December 13, 2013

Brown Dog: Novellas
by Jim Harrison

  • Publication Date: December 3, 2013
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 448 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press
  • ISBN-10: 0802120113
  • ISBN-13: 9780802120113