Returning to Earth by Jim Harrison

August 21, 2012

And again Death, ever Death, Death, Death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird, nor like my arous’d child’s heart,

But edging near, as privately for me, rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears, and laving me softly all over,
Death, Death, Death, Death, Death.

Nine times one is the beginning of death—or life, if you read Whitman with an open, generous and healthy heart.

Unfortunately I don’t read him that way, unless I’ve drunk a glass or two of wine. Then I’m totally cool with Death. We get along just fine. But in the main, I have great anxiety over death and dying. I worry about headaches, lymph nodes, groin twinges, eye floaters and countless other symptoms, too silly to relate. Hell, sometimes I don’t even need a symptom. Once a patch of blighted grass sent me sorrowing over my mortality for the rest of the day. I’ve even abandoned a book when I learned the protagonist had melanoma on his shoulder blade. So it’s a minor miracle I persisted in reading Returning to Earth by Jim Harrison when this maddeningly stoic sentence greeted me in the first few pages, “I’m forty five and it seems I’m to leave the earth early but these things happen.”

It’s a good thing I persisted. Narrated by four different characters, the story explores reactions to Donald’s illness, his death and dying, and its aftermath. Unwilling to suffer uselessly, Donald participates in his own burial. He acquires a powerful tranquilizer from his doctor because he doesn’t want to make a mess with a pistol or deer rifle. He and his family cross the border above the Upper Peninsula and into Canada. A burial is dug beneath a granite escarpment as Donald watches on. His family lowers him into the grave. “Donald nodded to Herald, who quickly plunged the hypodermic into Donald’s arm. Clare and I got down into the grave and helped Donald stretch out on the bed of cedar boughs. Cynthia slid down and and lay beside Donald crooning softly. Within minutes Donald was dead and we helped each other out of the grave… And then we all drove home.”

Triple entendres aren’t easy to pull off, and when the landing sticks, they deserve special recognition. Donald is returned to earth; that’s plain enough. His daughter Clare, distraught by his death, struggles with his absence until she finds solace in the fact that Donald returns to earth in another form, as a plant, a tree, a bird or, as she earnestly believes, a bear. But there’s a third meaning to the phrase returning to earth, perhaps the most pertinent of all for those who struggle with the “incalculable rudeness of death.” In the end they, too, must return to earth and get on with the business of living.

I opened with Whitman. Why not close with Frost? Like Whitman and Harrison, he knows life is hard and demands toughness.

No one believed. They listened to his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.

No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

awash in shades of Great Gatsbyan green

May 9, 2012

I confess, I was slightly disappointed by J. Harrison’s fireflies.

I waited patiently for them like an entomologist in the field, knowing full well they’d make an appearance—as they must, in a story called The Woman Lit by Fireflies.

Although my patience was rewarded, my high expectations were not. After all, my standard of excellence is Annie Dillard when it comes to the literary treatment of light. If every word of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek were to mysteriously disappear from every page of every copy of the book save the image of “the tree with the light in it,” Pilgrim, now a mere fragment, would still retain its grandeur. This may or may not be hyperbole.

Not only does light figure prominently in Fireflies, but color and water do, too. Green, in particular. The story is awash in shades of Great Gatsbyan green. The pain of a migraine is a “diffuse green light;” cornfields are “dense walls of green,” and a thicket in the field is a “green hole” or “makeshift cave.”

And Clare, 50, needs all the hope and optimism she can muster.

At a rest stop on HWY 80 in Iowa, Clare escapes her husband of more than 20 years in style. She clambers over a chain-link fence and bolts for freedom, disappearing into a dense green cornfield. Truly a woman after my own heart, Clare carries a compass and a copy of the Tao Te Ching. She even purifies water and makes a cottonwood fire, all in the course of a difficult night, as memories rise before her like ghosts, both spooky and friendly.

As for the greatest of all natural symbols, water is both purified and purifying in Fireflies. Clare slips “down the slick, muddy bank into sluggish, dark brown water.” An accidental baptism. You got to get dirty before you get clean.

But what about lightning bugs? Like I said, their appearance, twice, leaves me largely unmoved, especially when you contrast them with Harrison’s fine use of color and water.

Here’s the first one: “A half dozen fireflies had gathered in the darkness around her green cave, and the tiny beams seemed to trace the convolutions of her thought.”

And the second: “Hundreds of yellow dots were whirling about her and above the rabbit that paused beside the dim coals of the fire…. She prayed for her heart to stop thumping and looked up at the moon, and there were fireflies above her…. The fireflies were thicker in some places above the thicket, blinking off and on, whirling toward each other so if you blurred your eyes there were tracers, yellow lines of light everywhere…. Countless thousands of fireflies stayed just outside and within and above the thicket.”

Both passages are perfectly competent. They’re better than what most journeymen can cobble together. I especially like the rabbit and the “thumping” heart in the second one, as well as “tracers” and “yellow lines of light.”

But a Dillardesque treatment of light it is not.

the continuous kiss of cartilaginous lips

May 3, 2012

Like Revenge, Brown Dog starts with a visually arresting image.

Instead of a vulture circling to earth and croaking at a dying man, Brown Dog opens with a “dead three-hundred pound ancient Indian chief sitting bolt upright on the bottom of Lake Superior.”

His is the body that won’t bloat and rot at such cold depths.

He sits on a ledge as if in meditation, prophesying. His hair wavers in the current. He looks perfectly alive save the absence of his eyes. The continuous kiss of cartilaginous lips have pecked away at the soft tissue. Fish are affectionate that way. A Tiresias of the deep.

For B.D., a petty criminal and diver of sunken ship artifacts, this is a great find, indeed. A well-preserved dead Indian fetches a black market value of 20 thousand bucks. B.D. has a second chance to put his life aright.

So he pops two blue marbles in Tiresias’ eye sockets. Then hot wires a stolen ice truck and drives the body to Chicago on a highly entertaining caper that eventually lands B.D. in the pokey.

One of the chief effects of Brown Dog is self-effacing humor. Harrison achieves it with a nifty little conceit. B.D. is a chronic lier in a relationship with a woman based on a lie who, the lier claims, urges B.D. to write down his thoughts as honestly as possible to become healthy, whole, one.

Add to this that B.D. is a blue-collar guy’s guy and his lover a college educated woman whose head is laden with theory. She loves to practice her insight psychology on him and “probes” him at all hours of the day. She’s smart. She knows things. So B.D. tries his best to be worthy of smart thoughts.

Problem is, he doesn’t want to think smart thoughts.

“My favorite thing is just plain walking in the woods. I can do it days on end without getting tired of it. I mix this up a bit with fishing and hunting. Of course I like to make love and drink. That goes without saying.”

The result is a reluctant confessional that treats virtues and vices with comic irony and a deadpan delivery.

It’s my favorite Harrison novella yet.

what can brown do for you?

May 1, 2012

If beer is the unsung hero of Beowulf and wine the underlying reality of Tortilla Flat, there’s good reason to think every work of art contains a secret. Brown Dog, a novella by Jim Harrison, is no different. Except its gnostic teaching is inspired not by fermented malted barley or grapes but by the glories of female geometry, largely the backside, the fanny, preferably large and solid, bare bottoms “that show plain as day,” and butts “sticking up in the air like cameras taking pictures,” but also the crotch, with “shorts pulled up in a pretty way,” and the vagina, the great cavern of life, at once “source” and curse, “a beautiful mouth of hell.” As admirers of Harrison’s prose know, his peculiar genius is the droll, male first-person I’m-having-a-mid-life-crisis voice. It’s a unique brew of the comic and erotic. Sometimes it’s just flat-out comic, like this humorous bit which is reminiscent of Kramer in “Seinfeld” who says of the stifling heat in the sauna that “It’s as hot as a sauna in here” — “This nightie is purple and smooth as satin because that’s what it’s made of.” Other times the humor is comic and erotic all at once. “In a cold climate a larger woman is favored by all except transplants from down below (the southern peninsula of Michigan) who bring girlfriends up here who look like they jumped right off the pages of a magazine. Nobody pays them much attention unless the situation is desperate. Why take a little girl if you can get a big one? It’s as simple as that.” I’m warming up to the idea of saying something more about Brown Dog. But want to get clear on a few things first. As a teaser, let me just say that Brown Dog, B.D. for short, the character who bears the name of the story, has a profound and entertaining relationship with a dead body. Don’t think Lester Ballard in Child of God. No, don’t think that, for although B.D. may be a petty criminal, a homicidal necrophiliac he is not. I swear.

Jim Harrison, or did you know?

April 27, 2012

In addition to the usual pleasures of reading Jim Harrison, one is often treated to very interesting tidbits about the world and its inhabitants. Like, “What few people know is that Lake Superior stays so cold near the bottom that drowned bodies never make it to the surface. Bodies don’t rot and bloat like in other fresh water, which means they don’t make the gas to carry them up to the top.” And this bit of native American mythology, slightly recast by the wonderfully droll and humorous narrator in Brown Dog, “It was an Indian story from out west about when we were first on earth. Every time a man would screw he’d bleed to death because women had sharp teeth in their articles. It wasn’t until a coyote came along and pulled the teeth out that men could screw without dying and get the human race started. This is why the coyote is thought to be sacred.” Happy Friday.