January 5, 2010 by Reader's Connection
I first encountered Jim Harrison in the 1985 summer fiction issue of Esquire. He didn´t have a story in there, but he did some griping. He was bugged by the fact that most authors worked for government-supported institutions–they had to teach to support themselves, in other words. Then, in the next paragraph, it was revealed that Harrison was supported in part “through the financial help of friends like actor Jack Nicholson.”
I thought this was preposterous. How dare this guy with his millionaire movie star patron(s) complain about the way other writers get by?
For going on 25 years, now, I’ve held a grudge against Harrison. I’ve read none of his novels, and when I came across reviews that complained about his “tiresome macho populist swagger,” I growled with ignorant approval.
But of late I’ve been softening. I wrote a blogpost last June about Braided Creek: A Conversation in Poetry, a book that consisted of poems that Harrison and Ted Kooser had sent each other in the mail; and a few weeks back, I bought a copy of his novel Returning to Earth. Yes, it was a fifty-cent paperback from the lobby of the Library Services Center, but I was enjoying it so much as I read it that I bought another copy (at a bookstore) to give away at Christmas.
Living near Lake Superior on Michigan’s upper peninsula, Donald is a Chippewa-Finnish guy who’s forty-five years old and has Lou Gehrig’s disease. He seems to be having thoughts of ending his life near the spot where he had a religious experience a few years earlier. He narrates the first section of the novel, and his wife Cynthia inserts some glosses. It was while reading Donald’s part of the book that I enthusiastically bought a copy to give away.
The book has four parts, though, and the narrators of the second and third parts are a cousin called “K” and a brother-in-law named David. I didn’t think their voices were as convincing as Donald’s. This may just be another way of saying that Donald has a stronger sense of himself in the world than either of these other characters. I was reading their stories in bits and pieces over the holidays, when I was visiting with family and, in one case, talking with a sister-in-law about my father’s death a couple of years earlier; and perhaps I wasn’t able to listen properly to K and David.
If you’re open to the way Harrison allows his tale-tellers to ramble, there are certainly humorous and poetic passages in their accounts. Here’s K, waking up in a cabin in the woods.
I was awakened just before dawn by the first birds and David’s resonant snoring, also a dream that verged on nightmare. My grandpa Ted used to like to tell woeful stories about his family while we looked through a pile of scrapbooks. In the dream an old photo talked in a language I couldn’t understand. It was Ted’s great-uncle Alberto, who drowned in a mine when the Michigamme river poured into the Mansfield shaft over near Crystal falls way back when. It happened in late September and Alberto, who hated the cold, had intended to return with his saving to his home ground in Emilia-Romagna in Italy to start a trattoria. Ted liked to end his stories with often inappropriate morals. “Alberto’s story shows a man that if you want to do something you better get your ass in gear.” The dream made me wonder what language the dead speak. A local politician rejecting foreign languages in a school budget had said, “If English was good enough for Jesus Christ it’s good enough for our kids.”
I trotted the two miles or so down a log trail to fetch the car, pausing only for a baby skunk who came out of the ferns ahead of me. He stopped. I stopped. He sat down. I sat down. I was likely his first human. I described my recent life and he seemed to doze, then walked off under the mantle of the ferns.
Cynthia, Donald’s wife, narrates the fourth part of the book, and for me she brought the story back together after the wanderings of K and David.
So is this tale worth reading, and have I overcome my ill will toward its author? Yes, and Yeah, pretty much so. The novel allows it characters to ruminate on life and death, to present all sorts of answers to our unanswerable questions. One of the characters thinks her deceased father has turned into a bear, and while none of the narrators agrees with her, no one makes a joke of her Chippewa-based beliefs. Donald’s description of his three-day solitary fast, near the end of his part of the book, is quite convincing.
As for my ill will: To be fair, with or without Jack Nicholson, Harrison was never living at the Ritz. He has always been an author with a sincere love of the wild, and this works its way into his fiction and his poems–the most recent collection of which, In Search of Small Gods, I’m currently reading and enjoying.