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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Brown Dog’

- - Thursday, January 9, 2014

BROWN DOG
By Jim Harrison
Grove Press, $27, 525 pages

You could think of Brown Dog as the archetypal noble savage — except that he isn't particularly noble, and he may not be a savage.

Jim Harrison, a genuine gift to readers, has given us "Brown Dog" as a character in five other novels and stories. In 1990, he introduced B.D. in "The Woman Lit by Fireflies." Four years later, the likable character re-emerged in "Julip," and in 2000 in "The Beast God Forgot to Invent." In 2005 and then again in 2010, a slightly older but unchanged Brown Dog graced — which is certainly not the right word — the pages of "The Summer He Didn't Die" and "The Farmer's Daughter," respectively.

All of those appearances are in this volume, plus a brand new novella, "He Dog," in which we find B.D. pushing 50 with his character enhanced by an even greater degree of mellow. Taken together, the six novellas add up to a hefty novel that alternates between sweet and sour with no warning, indicating B.D.'s (and his creator's) belief that while there's a whole lot of hurt out there in the world, there's a whole of happy as well.

B.D.'s preferred dwelling is a deer cabin in the woods, because he has to vacate it only during hunting season, Nov. 25 to Dec. 1. As he often makes repairs to the cabins, he pays no rent. His only official document being a driver's license, his traceable links to society are next to zero. Somehow, Brown Dog has even avoided the dreaded Social Security system. (In the next-to-last story, he has a fake card, but manages to lose it.)

"He was observant of the multiple torments people seemed to have daily and felt lucky that he could resolve his own problems with a couple of beers and a half-dozen hours of trout fishing, and if a female crossed his path whether fat or thin, older or younger, it was a testament that heaven was on earth rather than somewhere up there in the remote and hostile sky."

Quite a number — and variety — of females cross B.D.'s path in these six tales. In the first novella, there's Shelley, the voluptuous 26-year-old anthropology graduate student who sleeps with Brown Dog in part so he will lead her to a secret burial place of some American Indians who may or may not be his ancestors, and then Rose, to whom he'd lost his heart in childhood. ("To call her a sweetheart would be a stretch, in sailing terms. She was born mean, captious, sullen, with occasional small dirty windows of charm.")

After that, there's Lydia, the overweight and overly libidinous dentist. However, the real true love of B.D.'s exceptional life is Gretchen, the social worker and lesbian who asks him to father her child. B.D. is, of course, crushed that she doesn't want to do it the old-fashioned way."

Why do women like B.D. so much? "He was one of those rare men who, for better or worse, knew exactly who he was."

Of all the women in Brown Dog's life, Gretchen comes closest to figuring him out, in part because her job provides her with access to his school records that show "... his intelligence was well above average, which caused her to question him sharply.

"'Why live like you do? You're smart enough to do otherwise.'

"'I just slid into it.'

"'Well, you flunked English literature, but you aced geometry.'

"'Geometry was real pretty.'"...

"When Gretchen had said that he was frozen in place at age twelve he had reflected that that had been a good year."

B.D. tries to figure out why he's so attracted to Gretchen. "He suspected it was what everyone called love, something he couldn't get his head around, he supposed, because he didn't have a mother he could remember. You start out loving your mother, and then you move on."

B.D.'s purpose in life is to do the real and decent thing, even when it might not be strictly speaking legal, which is why he protects Rose's children when she is sent to prison (for biting the finger of a police officer clean off) — the whip-smart Red who will find success in life, and Berry, the mute and lovable fetal-alcohol syndrome child who will not.

Over the course of the six interconnected novellas, with their reappearing cast of interesting characters, Brown Dog's travels even take him as far away as Los Angeles, definitely not B.D. territory, but, characteristically, he adjusts to and even likes it, though the pull of Michigan's Upper Peninsula remains constant and strong.

The last time I read a book by an American writer that made me smile, laugh and then reflect on a deeper meaning, all in the same paragraph, I was reading about that oh-so-American boy called Huckleberry Finn, who, if you remember, lit out for the territory rather than become "civilized." You think maybe the territory could have been the Upper Peninsula?

John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.