BACK in the day when he was first publishing (Wolf, 1971, Warlock, 1981, Sundog, 1984), Jim Harrison sounded a new note in American fiction: his diction inventive and startling, sentences rhythmic and beautifully turned, paragraphs dense but delightful.
He wrote with verve and passion about ordinary people who found themselves boxed in by life but transcended their condition into a kind of down-home grace. More than a dozen novels have followed.
Harrison, now 75, hails from Michigan and he's always found a place for what he calls "northern Midwest" locales in his work. In this volume, two novellas, he returns to these in The Land of Unlikeness, a journey to the past for the central character, Clive, who lives in New York but has returned home to look after his aging mother.
A failed painter, now a professor of art history, Clive is a big-boned farmer's son who "wanted to be a slender aesthete," but who ended up being a disillusioned dilettante, without "belief in the life he had adopted after giving up painting."
As he comes across locales from his youth, memories are triggered in 60-year-old Clive. The narrative spins back in time: to his teen heartthrob; to memories of fishing with his father; to his early ambitions to be a painter.
It's a story of loss and pain, of missed opportunities and thwarted desires. It's also a bit tiresome: Clive not only revisits the various battlegrounds of his life; he wallows in his defeats. He seems unable to rise above big-city self-importance, and it's a bit grating.
In the title novella, Thad, a northern Michigan high-school boy who has grown up elbow to elbow with natives and wild creatures, has a talent for swimming and the ambition to go to Scripps to study water creatures -- and to swim around Manhattan and from Cuba to Florida.
Though tough in the way of his tribe, Thad is a gentle boy; but he falls awry of the town big-shot and ends in a fight with him, suffering a broken nose, cheek, and jaw.
It frightens him but does not stop him from swimming down the length of Lake Michigan to Chicago, where he hooks up with a powerful Illinois business family that takes his side in sorting out things back home.
This novella is about the clash of these two worlds: urban, flashy Chicago and rural, native Michigan. Michigan is not the bucolic nature of Romantic fantasy.
It's a place where folks regularly kill wild creatures and maim each other with tire irons and two-by-fours. A place that gives Thad "murderous thoughts."
To escape them, he turns to the rigours of planting tomatoes, to having sex with two girls, and mostly to long-distance swimming. It's a backwoods adventure with big city ramifications, and it leads to a disastrous ending for Thad and sorrow for the hearty folk who love him.
But despite its bringing together strong characters, a rich locale and tragic drama, this narrative, too, plods a bit, as if Harrison were forcing the plot forward and trying to get to the conclusion before moving on to something he'd prefer to be doing.
Harrison has always been a master of the language: witty, erudite, pithy. He's also had a keen eye for the delusions that drive us onward and the heartaches we bring upon ourselves.
The River Swimmer showcases much good writing; but it's also something of a literary cul de sac: neither piece has the energy or inventiveness of Harrison's earlier fiction. Maybe, like Clive, he's just getting tired; maybe he's had his say.
Winnipeg writer Wayne Tefs' inquiry into the return of the Jets to Winnipeg and investigation into sports fandom, On the Fly, was released last fall.