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Book Review: True North by Jim Harrison

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Imagine for a moment that we live in the best of all possible worlds, a Panglossian paradise with God in his heaven, where the center will hold, your mileage never varies and 50 million Frenchmen actually can’t be wrong.

At least not wrong in their high regard — a justifiable Jerry Lewis-ization, if you will — for Michigan novelist, poet, screenwriter and roving gourmand Jim Harrison, who is accorded more popularity and widespread acclaim in France than in the United States. Perhaps then, we wouldn’t have such an under-the-radar readership for such an accomplished and worthy writer who has written, in the course of nearly 40 years, seven novels, four novella collections, 11 books of poetry and innumerable essays — in styles variously earnest and comic, and in lyrical prose at once tough and insightfully tender, but always cogently and entertainingly written, encompassing or touching upon such issues as greed, revenge, nature, hunting and fishing, and American-Indian life.

Harrison’s many-layered, earthy and spiritual explorations of human appetites and needs, of action, art, sex, violence, love and death — constituted in what the author has called the “mental heat, experience, jubilation” of a fully engaged life — strikes a foreign chord, Harrison believes, due to a fascination with America’s wide-open landscape, and because the French aren’t “so grotesquely plot- oriented.” Moreover, the somehow so-dubbed “Mozart of the Plains,” notes that he is extensively read in France because “in my fiction you have the life of relative action, but also the life of the mind. In so much fiction we have one or the other, but never both. We tend to try to separate them.”

In Legends of the Fall (1979), one of Harrison’s best-known novellas, the narrator alludes to the bond of brain and brawn that comes with the best-laid plans of action, the introspection-fueled feats of entwined determination and deed: “Some of our strangest actions are also our most deeply characteristic: Secret desires remain weak fantasies unless they pervade a will strong enough to carry them out. Of course no one ever saw the `will’ and perhaps it is a cheapish abstraction, one blunt word needing a thousand modifiers.”

And then some. With the movingly ruminative but meandering and inconsistent True North, where there’s a will, there’s a wait. And more waiting still — three decades worth — as the narrator, hardworking, mercurial and ever-conscientious David Burkett, sustains a resolve to confront and overcome forces both industrial and dysfunctional, to atone for the sins of his robber baron forefathers, and more personally, the transgressions of his own avaricious “alcoholic pervert” of a father and ineffectual “goofy pillhead” mother.

Initially allied with his younger, defiant sister Cynthia (who leaves home through an early and opposed marriage to a half-breed Chippewa), David vows to fight fire with familial fire: ” … our willfulness was part of our character, and it made the people in our family what they were, and would make us like we wished to be and hopefully that would be better than our `worthless’ parents.”

Whether through willpower or wishful thinking, David has a lot to contend with. As the scion of wealthy timber and mining magnates of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, he has the time and money to — in picaresque and at times problematic league with some quirky friends and black-sheep kin — indulge in his outrage for his ancestors’ widespread ecological desecration of the forests and abuse of labor, while also trying to exact moral or monetary recompense from his father for his land-grabbing and trust-fund raiding. Worst of all, though, is his father’s personal violations of underage girls, including the rape of his trusted valet’s daughter Vera.

To frame the episodic nature of such expected heroics and villainy, True North is divided into three parts, marking the 1960s, ’70s and the ’80s, roughly corresponding to David’s teens, 20s and 30s. It’s a structure designed not only to trace his growth, the give and take of the bitter and sweet, but to map out David’s increasingly preoccupying progress in his declared “project” to discover “what went wrong with my family, or find out if it was ever right in the first place.”

David’s objective is to set things right and settle scores — by trial and error, apparently. Influenced early on by his religion-hopping Uncle Fred, earnest David, having “lost faith in rationality,” first seeks answers in fundamentalist Christianity and a stint in theological school. His convictions are easily sapped, however, by conflicting and more convincing doses of teenage lust. Then, after the advent of the ’70s and some drifting, a short marriage, a few relationships that pass in the night, and more solidified bonds — the most successful with his dog Carla — David finds his “tunnel vision expanding to take in far more of the life around me that my mind had buried,” and finds satisfaction in manual labor and spirituality in nature as he strives, with much effort, to break out of his self-absorption and think more communally and altruistically.

With David’s jumbled thoughts and emotions in his quest for “living a life of wholeness,” the narrative fittingly proceeds with bipolar disorderliness into the manic 1980s as ongoing machinations and reconciliations and changes upon changes wreak a little havoc on a depressed and struggling thirtysomething David, who sees his perpetually stalled project evolve from a short account of his despised family’s misdeeds to a more scholarly, duly footnoted and more challenging history of the Upper Peninsula and the Burkett’s culpability in its despoliation. Some of this residual, free-floating familial guilt and accountability soon rubs off on a newly energized David, too: In addition to going to Europe to seek out an old flame, he feels compelled to travel to Mexico to seek forgiveness, on behalf of his father, from the now-grown Vera.

When David’s suddenly repentant father attempts the same mission – – as a big step in a 12-step program —True Northcurtails waywardness and wraps up events in one of those trademark Harrison-style surprises, used so well in Warlock (1981) and Dalva (1988). Invited along for the trip, David by now has buried some resentment and come around to the idea that “Forgiveness wasn’t excusing the offender but unburdening yourself of the tyranny of the offender by seeing him in full human perspective.” However, had he known about the retaliatory outcome in store, one that’s as intense as the ending in the 1979 novella Revenge, David may have chosen to opt out of this particular opportunity for a ringside re-examination of the less endurable bounds of the social condition.

The reader, too, may by now have decided to opt out of this heartfelt but disjointed novel. Events lurch in fits and starts throughout, with David’s indecisive actions and procrastinating ways entirely human, but exasperating; after a certain point, despite some veracity to the adage, the proverbial destination is as paramount as the journey. And while initially David’s vacillating self-scrutiny is emotively convincing, his brooding and musings become belabored, losing impact with the repetition — and sometimes hindering the full consideration and explication of the theme of ethical reparations for, and full disclosure of, the sins of the fathers.

Still, if Harrison’s newest work is flawed and uneven, it is nevertheless a rich and satisfying read for the strenuously poetic passages detailing not only the complexities, quirks and intricacies of human emotions and interactions, but also for conveying a solid sense of place. Harrison strays now and then from his Michigan birthplace, as he has throughout his life and in his writing, but the most authentically portrayed and vivid scenes in True North are those that take place in the Upper Peninsula, making a rustic backwoods cabin in the forbidding frozen wilderness seem the quintessence of hearth and home. It certainly helps elucidate why a character would go to the ends of the world to safeguard his little corner of it.

I sat there for nearly two hours with Carla close beside me having been frightened by a feral barn cat in a nearby thicket.

It was the strangest feeling possible when the primary obsession of my life began to abandon me. Every filament of my musculature began to loosen and it was as though my brain had liquefied and might begin to leak. I was struck by the irritability of my hate for my father and now that it had begun to recede I realized how strongly we wish to love our parents beyond childhood.

The vast river before me became incomprehensible with this perception and I wanted very much to give up trying to understand the world, at least for the time being.

I scratched Carla’s ears. She was enervated by the feral cat who had now emerged from the thicket and was glaring at her from fifty yards away. In respect to Carla it was comic to think again of Cynthia’s gift for intimidation while I walked through life leading with my chin. On occasion I had unwittingly tripped over life herself on my myopic, solo descent into hell. It now struck me as so simple in that looking backward I saw how fueled by a singular obsession I couldn’t see clearly where I was walking.

Meanwhile Carla was stiffening and there was a rumbling in her chest, and then she burst toward the cat who shot up a slender tree at the edge of the thicket. On the way back to the truck Carla was full of herself, pranced absurdly and seemed to grow larger. As for myself I was the same size but not quite the same man.

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About Gordon Hauptfleisch

  • Bliffle

    Interesting review. My wife, who is French, reads Harrison, but doesn’t discuss books with me: she tells me to read them myself!

  • Warren

    This post now has another venue for success – and more eyes – at the Web sites, a place affiliated with about 10 newspapers.

    One such site is here.

    Also please let your contact know, if you had one, that this article, is published at one more place. That helps to show they get two?, three? for the “price” of one.


    Warren Kelly
    Books Editor

  • GoHah

    Thanks Warren: I appreciate the recognition–Gordon