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.


the last great challenge of literary prose

March 13, 2012

For years I’ve contemplated the moon, when it is but a sliver, and wondered what metaphor might best serve to capture it. Sliver, by the way, is very low on my list. Suppose I were to channel my inner poet, what might he have to say about it. Ready? Well after years of meticulous attention and studious effort, and even additional months of careful refinement and polishing, the very best I can come up with is toe nail clipping. The diurnal course of a toe nail clipping? The soft glow of detritus? Really? Pathetic. But it’s the best I got. There’s a reason I’m a blogger not a poet after all. Still, I’ve kept my eyes and ears open to any taker bold enough to tackle the great sliver/toe nail literary challenge. Guess what? Poet and novelist J. Harrison has put a pro bowl hit on it. This gorgeous image comes from the blood-stained pages of Revenge. “Now his eyes fixed on a cuticle of light peeping above the next building. It became the moon, nearly full and its flowering nimbus showed him the room and his feet on the floor.” Cuticle, it’s perfect, just perfect. Can you or some writer you know to do better?

the vulture in the sky keeps on turning

March 1, 2012

I can’t quit the vulture, Harrison’s vulture, that is. The scavenger’s been on my mind. It’s an arresting image, to be sure. Fingered wings tilting against a blue sky. Descending on an aspiring corpse, prostrate in the desert. Not only is it a powerful image, it’s an effective opening to Revenge, a story that contains graphic scenes of violence, purely and objectively rendered. What’s more dispassionate than a vulture? Only a novelist like J. Harrison (or C. McCarthy) with a highly evolved featherless literary aesthetic can stick his face in gore and write soberly about it. “Cochran stooped as if to take the blow and brought the knife upward, holding the handle in both hands, ripping upward with all his strength starting at the huge man’s balls, upward to his sternum where he pivoted and swiped the knife across the man’s neck laying it open to the neckbone.” Later, Cochran recalls the peculiar sound of blade on bone and says of his act of vengeance, “I gutted the fucker like a big fat pig.” Surely there are other examples of opening images in novels that announce the author’s narrative technique and method. Is there a particular one that comes to mind? A favorite of yours?

Postscript. Is the musical influence of today’s title too obvious?

Harrison smells a lot like London

February 27, 2012

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.”