True North by Jim Harrison

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.

8 Responses to True North by Jim Harrison

  1. paulhoy says:

    I too continue my romp through the fictional–and poetic–landscape of Jim Harrison. It’s an addition that comes with many of its own cures. I’m currently his collected non-fiction, “Just Before Dark.” Have you read “Dalva” and “The Beast God Forgot to Invent”? Two more examples of divergent styles.

  2. Hi Paul, I haven’t read his poetry although I’ve been told that he regards himself primarily as a poet. I don’t know if this is true, but given his feel for language and eye for observation, I wouldn’t be suprised. I’ve not Dalva or The Beast God Forgot to Invent. Don’t know if I plan to either. Hope to wrap up Harrison with Legends and Fireflies. If you were to recommend a must-read of his, what would it be? Many cheers, Kevin

    • Hugh O'Donoghue says:

      Hi Kevin, for me, any of Jim Harrison’s books are ‘must reads’, but if you really want a ‘must must read’ I’d recommend Returning to Earth – a wonderful book about dying and loss that really makes you want to live.

    • paulhoy says:

      I”d have to agree with Hugh and say that all Harrison’s books are must-reads. I also agree that “Returning to Earth” is a good choice, though I’d vouch for “Dalva” as well as “Tracking,” a novella in “The Summer He Didn’t Die.” “Tracking” is just beautiful. According to an Amazon reviewer, the Jim Harrison emotional autobiography is “a breathless outpouring of memory so true and pure that it stings.” One of the best reads.

      • Hugh O'Donoghue says:

        Hi Paul and Kevin,
        I haven’t read Tracking but will get around to it now. I agree on Dalva and also the sequel ‘The Road Home’ which I really enjoyed. One of my own favourites is Farmer especially the opening sequence in the restaurant. JH wouldn’t be all that well known here in Ireland, but he does have a small devoted following. Thank God for Amazon!!

  3. anokatony says:

    I like Jim Harrison’s writing having read quite a few of his novels and stories, not ‘True North’. As far as ‘the ponderous Thomas Mann’ , he must have read a different Thomas Mann than I did.

    • I had a similar reaction to the comment on Frost: tedious?! Not for me. So long as art has so many facets, I guess divergent reactions are inevitable. What’s your favorite Harrison? K

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