- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 3, 2007

Jim Harrison is intrigued by death. The second of his 14 books of fiction was called “A Good Day to Die,” the last one “The Summer he Didn’t Die,” and one of his nine poetry books deals solely with the death of his 16-year-old niece. It’s unknowable, and perhaps irrelevant, how much this has to do with the fact his sister died at 19, but the possibility is intriguing — and he has admitted that the death of his brother John a year ago was part of the impetus for this novel.

Suffice it to say that, like all the great writers, Jim Harrison makes you think about what one of the greatest, William Faulkner — not surprisingly, one of Mr. Harrison’s heroes — called the eternal verities.

How to accept the premature death of a good man is the problem Mr. Harrison poses in “Returning to Earth,” and he does so by using one of his favorite devices, multiple points of view. The first is that of Donald, the central character whose days are numbered, and the last is that of his wife, Cynthia. In between we learn about Donald’s life and character from Cynthia’s brother David and David’s son, “K,” and what Donald meant to the family.

Death isn’t just front and center in this book, it’s downstairs and right off the living room: “My bed is in [the] den because it’s too hard for me to get upstairs,” Donald tells us in the first paragraph. “… I’m forty-five and it seems I’m to leave the earth early but these things happen to people.”

That may sound stoical, but it’s entirely in character for Donald, who’s half Finn, half Chippewa. And American Indians, as Mr. Harrison has both shown and told us for years, are by nature stoical, especially when it comes to The Big Things in Life like birth and death, which they are far better able to deal with than white people are. But, as Mr. Harrison also likes to point out, thanks to those same white people, it’s the things in the middle they often find hard to handle.

Donald has a particularly aggressive form of ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease, so it will take him sooner than the three years Cynthia tells us 50 percent of ALS victims can expect. Before he goes, Donald wants to get some family history, some “stories,” down on paper for Herald and Clare.

But since he is too weak to write he must dictate the stories to Cynthia, who interrupts his narrative from time to time to comment, in brackets, on something Donald has said or left out. In the hands of a lesser writer this device could prove disastrous, but with Jim Harrison it just flows like the river of stories Donald has within him.

One of the high points of Donald’s life was the three-day fast he made in the woods several years before his illness was diagnosed. “In my three days I was able to see how creatures including insects looked at me rather than just how I saw them … I was lucky enough to have my body fly over the countries of earth and also to walk the bottom of the oceans, which I’d always been curious about. I was scared at one point when I descended into the earth and when I came up I was no longer there.”

That descending, that returning to earth, is just what Donald wants his final act to be, and he asks his loved ones for their acceptance and, because his disease has robbed him of the great physical strength that had always been so much a part of him, also for their assistance.

They give him both, and Donald receives the death and burial he so desired with the same grace and dignity that marked his too-short life. The remainder of the book, more than half, recounts how those left behind come to grips with his absence.

It is no accident that their actions embody two of the other verities Faulkner mentioned in his Nobel acceptance speech, courage and endurance.

For the record, Mr. Harrison, one of the finest American writers of the last half-century, has also written two collections of essays and one memoir. He won a Pulitzer, earned a Guggenheim Fellowship, has a huge following in France and published books in 22 languages. He’s had stories in The New Yorker and other bastions of literary acceptability. So how come he isn’t Norman Mailer-Philip Roth-John Updike-(or even)Tom Wolfe famous?

There are several plausible reasons. One is that while Mr. Harrison is well acquainted with both coasts, he has chosen to reside in his native Michigan or his adopted state of Montana, and he sets his stories in those rugged locales.

Another possibility is that he persists in decrying what he calls “the Lit Biz” and “the Lit Industry,” and he makes no bones about his lack of fondness for all university writing programs (MFAs in particular) other than the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the Stanford program under Wallace Stegner.

Mr. Harrison is also wonderfully outspoken. In 1998, he told Salon, “I don’t like to go to colleges to lecture. I won’t anymore … This whole idea of political correctness that began in the Northern colleges has the exact cellular structure of Cuban communism. Nobody even flirts anymore.”

He has said that his favorite subjects are “mixed breeds who have their own peculiar problems” and women. Of the latter, he once said, “Writing as a woman presents enormous problems.” He didn’t do that well in “Three Republican Wives,” one of the three novellas that make up “The Summer He Didn’t Die,” but the Cynthia section of this book is pitch perfect. Mr. Harrison also writes with great beauty and power about nature and the outdoors. A bookseller in his native Upper Peninsula of Michigan wrote that reading Jim Harrison is “like having a bear loose in your head.” Read this book and you will see exactly what he means.

In addition to his love of the outdoors, Mr. Harrison is more than a little fond of food and drink, although his previously gargantuan pace has been slowed recently by the discovery of Type 2 diabetes. Two years ago, he told another interviewer, “A friend of mine, a book collector/dealer in Burgundy, France, had a lunch for a group of friends that had 37 courses and took 11 hours. Nineteen wines. It was a nice lunch.”

That Jim Harrison is not as well known as he should be here on the East Coast is a shame, but, fortunately, one that you can do something about very easily. This is a major book by a major writer working at the top of his powers. Don’t miss it.

John Greenya is a writer in Washington, D.C.

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