“the moon shone clear and sweet on his face and chest”

Weaving J. Harrison, V. Woolf and J. Crowley into a post has got to be worth something, no? So let’s start in the starting place. The opening line of The Man Who Gave Away His Name may not reveal Harrison’s narrative technique, at least not to the degree the vulture does in Revenge, but it does communicate something of the flavor of the ideas Harrison explores in the story. “Nordstrom had taken to dancing alone.” An elegant first step. Recently divorced, alone and on the precipice of a mid-life crisis, Nordstrom, 43, is searching for fluidity and grace. And he needs it, too. He’s ungainly, staid and mediocre is as mediocre does. Perhaps his greatest achievement as a non-imaginative thinker is the insight that “Life was only what one did every day.” Because he’s not doing much of anything, he decides to escape into the world rather than from it. He buys a sailboat, travels, learns to cook, smokes weed, drinks wine, gives his money away and makes love to women, young and old. In many respects, Nordstrom conforms to the male typology one often finds in Harrison (The English Major and Farmer, for instance), with this key exception: Nordstrom discovers fluidity and grace at the end of a transformation that finds him throwing a bad-ass gangster out the window to his death. “Using the wall for a fulcrum Nordstrom bolted through the room catching the man low in the back; two long heavy steps and he bore him quickly to and out the window before the man even began to struggle.” According to Crowley via Tom at Amateur Reader and then confirmed by Crowley himself via email because he’s generous that way, Virgina Woolf came inside one day from the garden house where she worked and proclaimed herself exhausted—she’d spent the morning moving characters from the drawing room into the dining room. Now if Woolf breaks a sweat over the practical challenges of marshaling people into a room, how much harder does Harrison have to work to make Nordstrom’s transition believable? The Man Who Gave Away His Name reads a lot like a self-imposed literary bar bet: Can I create, quoth Harrison to himself, an average Joe who abandons his habitual mode of life and reconceives it along entirely new lines? Or, “Are we truly allowed to start over?” Nordstrom asks in a journal entry. Harrison suggests an answer with his use of light imagery after Nordstrom’s stunning window-tossing feat: “The moon shone clear and sweet on his face and chest.” That, and the fact that the reader, looking down on the dead body below, thinks everything is exactly as it should be.

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3 Responses to “the moon shone clear and sweet on his face and chest”

  1. nicole says:

    !!! Great take on this one.

    • Why thank you! Just finished Legends and was surprised that I liked it least of the whole lot of them. It’s an extraordinary feat of compression, granted. But I liked Revenge the best, then The Man and finally Legends, even though Revenge isn’t as well composed as the other two stories. I’m a sucker for ideas on vengeance, justice, forgiveness, etc. What’s your take on the almost complete absence of dialogue in Legends? Is that part of Harrison’s epic storytelling voice?

      • nicole says:

        I think the “feat of compression” is a very large part of what I like, and I think you’re exactly right about the “epic storytelling voice” too. I go for that, I admit. I think it’s wonderfully tragic.

        I did like Revenge a lot too—really a lot—and it wouldn’t surprise me if reading order had something to do with it too. That tragic epic voice was my entrée into Harrison.

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