How sweet it is to exact revenge on a novelist, Gottfried Keller, by abandoning his work in favor of a novella entitled Revenge. Thank you, Jim Harrison. You provide the literary equivalent of comfort food. Tasty.
Speaking of food, I gag on the expression, “Revenge is a dish better served cold.” It’s as cliché as cliché can be. Try to unimprove upon it if you can and you’ll quickly see what I mean. Yet Harrison includes it as an epigraph. I forgive you. At least we know from the start that a contest of wills is in the offing.
Harrison smells like London
Although Harrison has been compared to Faulkner and Hemingway, given my dog-sense certainty I sniff out London as the stronger influence. Like London, Harrison’s prose often pays homage to Darwin, that great destroyer of kingdoms within Kingdoms and noble equalizer among animals.
In Revenge, non-human beasts throng everywhere. The story unforgettably begins with a horrific birth scene, a vulture, gradually spiraling from the sky and landing near a man’s naked body, “born battered and flayed in the bushes.” In case you can’t visualize the terrible details of his condition, I’ll give you two more colorful ones: His nuts are swollen purple to the size of potatoes from a ruthless groining.
Because the man isn’t carrion — he breathes with a whistle through his broken teeth — the vulture takes flight, wisely. Then a coyote saunters on stage, an “old male coyote who watched with intense curiosity from the shadow of a boulder.”
In addition to vultures and coyotes, crows, roosters, pointer dogs, deer, horses, mountain goats and other creatures people the pages of Revenge. And when the lives of the novella’s main characters unfold on those same pages, Harrison makes their animal-like qualities manifest in his rhetoric.
Man is a shark to man
The man with the purple nuts, for instance, is warned by a good friend not to mess around with a Mexican gangster’s wife: “And he [i.e., his good friend] said you shithead, you fool why do you think Tibey [i.e., the Mexican gangster] is called Tibey and he [i.e., purple nuts] didn’t know and was shocked at the reaction and his friend said, “Tibey is for tiburón tiburón tiburón which is shark.”
Like any hormonal creature splashing at the ocean’s edge, the man with the purple nuts is curiously aroused by the imminent threat. “…[T]his new danger alternately nagged and excited him with the adrenal rush that any mammal feels.”
Because Harrison, like London, sees sexuality and aggression as irrepressible features of our animal nature, the closing scene of Revenge is all the more powerful for it. For the usurper and the cuckold greet each other at last on a remote mountain path, and something other than fangs and venom are exchanged. It will surely surprise you as it should. But it’s entirely in line with the philosophical commitments of the story: “The heart wants life so much and the brain is shocked at the approach of death.”