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Book Review: The Summer He Didn’t Die by Jim Harrison

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With The Summer He Didn’t Die, Jim Harrison solidifies his position as a seasoned chronicler of outdoor life and inner turmoil–of the “mental heat, experience, jubilation” of a fully engaged existence–with a work about models, starlets, ballet dancers, and puppets. So to speak.

Noting that novelist and friend Tom McGuane once characterized the Midwest as a place where “Mortimer Snerd must have bred five thousand times a day to build that heartland race,” Harrison went on to note of his much-loved native Michigan: “True, but the land as I find it, and daily walk it, is virtually peopleless, with vast undifferentiated swamps, ridges, old circular logging roads; a region of cold fogs, monstrous weather changes, third-growth forests devoid of charm, models, and actresses, or ballerinas, but somehow superbly likable.”

This elemental sentiment, reinforcing Harrison’s highly-regarded and vividly-rendered sense of place, also has implications for character traits and development in the expressed aim to “give full vent to all human love and disappointment.” The sense that we are where we live and have been is evident throughout his forty year career as poet, essayist, and fiction writer in such works as Legends of the Fall, (1979), Dalva (1988) and The Road Home (1998), and is especially prominent in last year’s True North, where the main character tries to come to terms with the sins of his robber-baron forefather’s ecological despoliation of Upper Peninsula woodlands.

Now with a new volume of short works–two novellas and a seemingly tossed-off but insightful memoir–Harrison concentrates his efforts in a casually-structured, widely divergent and character-rich novella collection of more substance than mere happenstance for being rooted in Wolverine State life. And with the threat of protagonists being unwillingly displaced from the land they call home, some added suspense.

The title novella, displaying an abundance of humor and heart, takes up again the saga of Brown Dog (B.D.), a hapless half-breed in northern Michigan whose tale was most memorably recounted in 1990’s novella collection The Woman Lit By Fireflies.

Now back home at God’s little idle acre after some comically picaresque and felonious adventures during which he took on an imprisoned, alcoholic wife and a couple of stepchildren, B.D. is just trying to survive at the fringes of subsistence as a wood pulp cutter while he pines for his lesbian social worker and happily indulges the voracious sexual appetite of the local dentist.

B.D. is suddenly threatened, however, with the removal of his sweetly-natured seven-year old brain damaged stepdaughter Berry by the state, which wants to transfer her to a public boarding school in Lansing. Wary of such dead-end efforts, worried of “what will become of her in a world that has so little room for outcasts,” the bighearted and beleaguered B.D. takes an uncharacteristic and valiant course of action by helping to elaborately plan and execute a long-term escape with Berry into Canada. Such heroics are emboldened by newly emergent feelings of familial love, responsibility and hope: “In a lifetime noteworthy for its lack of domesticity the last nine months had nearly crushed him. He had developed an intense sympathy for all of the ordinary folk who had followed the nesting imperative and spent so much energy raising another generation. It simply enough filled their lives like it did his own and there were no longer those thousands of hours indulged in the dimension of stillness, the fishing and hunting and directionless wandering . . .”

“The Summer” novella also contains an apt little foreshadowing to the second work, “Republican Wives,” a thematic pendulum swing spottily poignant but gently and entertainingly mocking (with more broad-brush bromides than demonizing Dean-iac rants). As a perceptive state rover observes about life on the other side of the Mackinac Bridge, a prime benefit to living in the Upper Peninsula, unlike the more urbanized and affluent southern part of Michigan, lies in “discovering how slow the people were to complain about life’s brutal vagaries. The working class didn’t complain about hangovers because if you had enough money to get drunk in the first place you were in fine shape.”

Not that mid-life desperate suburbanites Martha, Frances, and Shirley, well-off University of Michigan sorority sisters who had married even better, don’t have enough time, money, and inclination to indulge in a little drinking, Grand Ol’ Party life, and if-it’s-Tuesday-it-must-be-Bedlam mayhem (think Thelma and Louise meets Jennifer Wilibanks, the deer-in-the-searchlights Runaway Bride). Martha, married to Jack, who was “born a trust officer,” is on the lam in Mexico and waiting for lawyers, guns, and money and the arrival of Frances and Shirley after having attempted to kill her long-time lover, the Svengali-like cad Darryl, Ann Arbor’s counter culture ogre, who was “actually at odds with everyone on the left, and the right was simply beneath contempt”–and who was also having simultaneous affairs with Frances and Shirley.

It’s a lot to sort out, and it’s not really sorted out to complete satisfaction or consequence, though it does deftly showcase Harrison’s embracing capacity to take on a credible feminine angle, recalling a similar stance effectively assumed in the novella “The Woman Lit by Fireflies.” There are some unexpected and welcome nuances that come in conjunction with the still-waters character of Shirley, who despite being the one who had been the most withdrawn and shy, has turned out to be the most realistic, activististic and insightful of the three, careful to not let herself fall into the trap of wanting everything “to be a pleasant blur.” It’s doubtful, though, that Martha and Frances will undergo an epiphanic sea change in the manner of Brown Dog, or will ultimately heed the nagging of Martha’s teenaged daughter who berates them to “do something with your lives more than that simpleminded stuff you’re already doing. . . .Save trees or the green turtle. Anything but sitting around feeling your asses get bigger and your skin droop.”

Harrison, of course, is anything but sedentary in his life or writing career. In the conclusion to his previous and full-length memoir, “Off to the Side” (2002), Harrison notes that he doesn’t feel an ounce of lifetime-achievement finality, saying “I’ll just see how far this life carries me. There’s a lot left to be described.” The third-person autobiographical “Tracking” in the current book, then, doesn’t pick up the slack as much as it does expressively elucidate in his usual unpretentious and witty manner such struggles as “whether to stay in your head or go out and meet the world”–pitting prose that concerned only the self against literature that considered the immensity and complexity of life. But either way, Harrison notes, “It wasn’t a long story for which you needed a suit, job, hat, and quick banter like Cary Grant in New York City, learn to dance on chairs like Al Jolson, discover ancient temples of the Maya in the manner of Richard Halliburton . . .”

Yet it is an often fascinating story not easy to articulate. “Tracking,” though, beyond covering some old autobiographical ground–education of the hard-knocks and formal varieties, the attention-deficit aspirations and wanderlust–excels at cogently and concisely presenting and exploring Harrison’s outlook and influences, the “puzzled trance of hormones and study, reading and fantasy” that went into shaping an intuition-driven, masterful storyteller, one who could delve into the mystery of locations to uncover the half-buried stories just waiting to be seized. All of the underpinnings of life, Harrison offers by way of explanation, “were mythologically oriented rather than drawn to accepted and rather ordinary agreements with what constituted reality.”

Facilitated by such transcending a mindset, a sometimes paradoxically earthy and ever-questing writer like Harrison is not so much a creator as he is a discoverer, an ever-evolving explorer of bigger truths and visions explicated with genuine sincerity and compassion. And as indicated by the breadth and depth of issues and ideas in The Summer He Didn’t Die that serve to impart an idiosyncratic version of reality in differing yet quietly inculcating ways, Jim Harrison isn’t just telling stories when it comes to telling stories.
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EXCERPT from title novella “The Summer He Didn’t Die.”

They pushed on further than usual to a beaver pond upstream, on the creek. Berry climbed a fir tree on the edge of the deep pond and pointed out the locations of trout she could see from her aerial position. B.D. waded in his trousers because both his waders and hip boots had leaks that exceeded the abilities of duct tape. It was a warmish morning and there was the additional great pleasure of late August fishing without the hordes of airborne biting insects. He tried a fly called a bitch creek nymph but it didn’t work so he tied on a cone nosed rubber bugger a resorter had given him and soon had eight fine trout for lunch. While Berry plaited and wove a grass basket for the fish B.D. sat on a stump where he kept hidden a pint of Schnapps for his fishing expeditions in the area. Strange to say he didn’t feel like a morning drink. His thoughts drifted to the old days when at first signs of trouble he would simply run away as far as a tank of gas would take him, maybe only to Bruce’s Crossing where he’d fish the Middle Branch of the Ontanagon and sleep in his battered old van. What happiness! Sitting there on the stump he was visited by a wave of incomprehension. The sun in the sky wasn’t problematical but who could have imagined water? Berry rolled her eyes when Bitch ate a fat black snake with Teddy pulling on the snake’s tail for portion. Berry was reason enough not to run away. She could talk with her eyes. Far in the distance they could hear the horn of the Chevette beeping and headed for home.

ed/pub:ak

About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • http://crowscry.blogspot.com/ John Spivey

    It’s interesting timing to have a review of Harrison occur at the same time as a review of Peacock considering their close relationship.