- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2005

THE SUMMER HE DIDN’T DIE

By Jim Harrison

Atlantic Monthly, $24.95, 277 pages

REVIEWED BY JOHN GREENYA

As he tracks his muse, Jim Harrison is about as quiet as a clap of thunder. With all his flights of literary allusion, his swoop

ing philosophical meanderings and his occasional side trips into intellectual posturing, he may lull you into thinking that he’s stalking his prey on little cat feet. Don’t be fooled. Jim Harrison, a true national treasure, could no more keep still about his love of life and literature and nature than Placido Domingo could keep from singing.

“The Summer He Didn’t Die,” Mr. Harrison’s 13th work of fiction, goes up on the shelf alongside his 10 volumes of poetry, two collections of essays, one children’s book and one memoir, a body of work that has earned this combat veteran of the literary wars many well-deserved awards. The three novellas that comprise this volume may not be equally satisfactory, and they may not be as good as some of what has gone before, but taken together they are very good and very satisfying. And if Mr. Harrison still reminds one a little too much of Hemingway, well, is that, necessarily, such a bad thing?

Part of the reason that comparison has been made for so long is that Mr. Harrison, probably best-known for his novella “Legends of the Fall” (yes, Brad Pitt did the movie), places his characters in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the same area where Hemingway set his famous Nick Adams stories. And he peoples that fascinating, elemental landscape with hunters and fishermen and a real mixed bag of others who also love to be “one with nature,” even though they’d never be caught dead putting it that way. Mr. Harrison is often asked about the Hemingway connection, and several years ago he replied that he had never felt influenced by him, “… though I suppose there is something inevitable there. I much preferred Faulkner, Dostoyevsky and Joyce as novelists.”

Two of Jim Harrison’s favorite subjects are, as he once put it, “mixed breeds who have their own peculiar problems” and women, whom he likes to present from their own, not a male’s, perspective. In this volume he does both, but not, in my opinion, with equal success. In the first novella, he brings Brown Dog, or B.D., a character he’s presented before, back on stage. A mixed breed with a strong sense of right and a surprisingly open mind to all sorts of other types in the U.P. (that’s how Michiganers refer to the very different northern part of their state), B. D. draws the line when child welfare authorities want to put his nature child stepdaughter in a school where she will be with “her own kind for her own good.” And of course B.D. can’t let that happen, can he? It’s vintage Harrison.

Speaking of writing about women as if he were one, the author once said, “Writing as a woman presents enormous problems but I have attempted it several times and haven’t had many complaints.” Well, sorry Jim, but you got one this time. “Republican Wives” is about three good-looking, unfulfilled, well-to-do middle-aged women who were friends at the University of Michigan in the 1980s. They’d all had their sexual innings with the same charismatic cad, back then and also through the years, and when one of them faces the possibility of jail for trying to poison him, the others rush to her side and we get to hear their long supposedly sad tale. Yawn. It’s not enough just to be satire; the targets have to be worth it.

In “Tracking,” the concluding novella, an account of an unnamed man’s life that appears to be heavily autobiographical, Mr. Harrison is back on more familiar ground. But, for this reader, the powerful chords of human decency that he plays with so little effort in the first story are far too faint in numbers two and three. Now, that said, it is still Jim Harrison we’re talking about here, which means fun and fine writing are never far away. I am tired of writers who seem to enjoy making fun of their own characters or holding them up to ridicule, and the fact that Jim Harrison, who can skewer a character with the best of them, never does that is one of the traits I most enjoy about his books.

Here he has B.D. explain the dilemma faced by the large and very horny female dentist who is new in town: “Belinda who had a decided nonresemblance to fashion models had taken to driving north to Ontonagon on weekends where her randy spirit had easily won the affection of a number of young native men, two Finnish miners, and a mulatto logger who had sent her to body heaven.” Somehow you just know Brown Dog is going to be next.

What makes Jim Harrison so special, in addition to his “LOL” sense of humor is his inherent decency, the basic humanity that comes through in almost all of his characters (even the three Republican wives) but especially in his noble savage updates and his sons and daughters of the earth who decry, like the main character in “True North,” what their familial predecessors have done to the land. He may be compared to Hemingway, but in this aspect Jim Harrison is much closer to Faulkner, the Faulkner of the Nobel Prize acceptance speech in which he said, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance. The poet’s, the writer’s, duty is to write about these things. It is his privilege to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.” Jim Harrison has taken that message to heart.

Even when Mr. Harrison disappoints, it’s never for long and never very badly. And, bless him, he makes you smile. Once, when asked for advice, he said, “The only advice I can give to aspiring writers is don’t do it unless you’re willing to give your whole life to it. Red wine and garlic also helps.”

John Greenya is a Washington writer and author of “Silent Justice: The Clarence Thomas Story.”

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