My romp through the fictional landscape of Jim Harrison continues. I’m astonished by his versatility. A one trick pony he is not. The stylistic differences between The English Major, Farmer and True North are notable enough that one is justified in thinking they issue from different authors entire.
In True North, we’re treated to a phenomenology of consciousness that spans three decades. The story is told in the voice of a thoughtful, privileged yet aggrieved man named David who is haunted by his family’s history of predatory behavior, both sexual and economic. His growth and development from a state of natural egoism to a moral point of view is the subject of the novel.
Like any thinking and feeling person, David experiments with the pleasures and moral properties of physical labor, trout fishing and reading. In Truth North texts are everywhere: old newspaper clippings, magazines, journals, letters and manuscripts.
Because Interpolations aspires to literary appreciation, let’s take a look at the verse and prose fiction that grace the pages of True North.
A Jane Austen novel makes a brief cameo when David’s sister slams it shut with these words, “We come from a long line of snotty criminals on both sides. Dad’s an alcoholic pervert and mother’s a goofy pill head.”
David reads The Possessed for extra credit in high school and recalls the scene where Krylov bites Stavrogin’s ear in a dark room. David gobbles up Brothers Karamazov, too, and realizes he’s “all three brothers plus the idiot half brother in one” when he only desires to be the holy Alyosha.
Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Travers is mentioned fondly because Travers is a Michigan supreme court justice, mentioned fondly not because he’s a judge but because he’s from Michigan, where the novel is largely set.
David reads The Stranger but is stifled what with his “propensity to fall into characters until I was close to suffocation.”
In TV and music, David sees nothing but soma ala Brave New World. He struggles to read “the ponderous Thomas Mann” and prefers Cather and Faulkner over Hemingway because of Papa’s depictions of war. He finds Robert Frost tedious even though his mother likes him, and thinks Lolita “the best revelation of its nature,” “its” being the obsessive fixation of older men on young girls. David reads Manhattan Transfer by Dos Passos, Henry Miller’s Sexus, and Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, a reminder that “even great artists have to write a little pornography to make money.”
The pages of Dante are turned, so too are the pages of Chaucer, Whitman and Longfellow who “cribbed” Hiawatha from Schoolcraft and Louis Agazssiz. David gives a long circular read of Ginsberg’s Howl; he “gets” Wordsworth’s Prelude but not the “inscrutable” Rilke, and ingests Melville, Trollope, Chekhov and a bloke named Isaac Singer.
But the novels that really irk David are the one’s that reflect his nature like mirrors. He finds Cather in the Rye intolerable because of the “insufferable resemblance” he bears to the novel’s preening wimp of a hero. Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man grates David because his “obsessions were similar to the young men who wished to become novelists or poets.” And he is nagged by Don Quixote because of the “disturbing similarity to his own project,” namely writing an ecological and economic history of his family’s malfeasance as a form of penance.
Happily our hero eventually finds his true north. But how he does so can only be learned by cracking open the novel.
Just like David would.