You can’t escape your true nature, Jim Harrison’s two new novellas assert. That realization is joyful in The Land of Unlikeness, which traces a 60-year-old man’s rediscovery of his lost vocation. But self-knowledge is rueful for the 17-year-old protagonist of The River Swimmer, who is rendered “comfortable and totally hopeless” by the recognition that no other desire will ever override his need to plunge himself into bodies of water. Harrison reverses the stereotypes by portraying new possibilities opening up in middle age while youth confronts the implacable reality of constraints, but he doesn’t let us forget that these particular assignments of destiny are arbitrary — “daffy as life itself.”
Harrison is best known for the dark tales driven by male violence in Legends of the Fall and for somber meditations on mortality and the bleak lessons of American history in The Road Home, True North and Returning to Earth. Yet there’s always been a strain of blithe sweetness in his work.
Clive in The Land of Unlikeness is a familiar Harrison character, an intellectual suspicious of intellect who fell in love with art and music as a boy because it was wonderful “to love something without the compromise of language.” Clive abandoned the family farm to become a painter; then he abandoned painting in the wake of a shattering divorce to become a well-paid art history professor and art appraiser in Manhattan. That comfortable existence increasingly seems to him to have “no traction for the future.”
A reluctant visit with his stern mother in Michigan prompts Clive’s bemused survey of his past, which is punctuated by a series of comic misadventures, including unwise bouts of drinking and semi-pathetic sex with an old girlfriend. Harrison’s satiric eye is as sharp as ever, yet he treats his hapless hero gently as Clive stumbles toward the liberating decision to stop trying to make sense of his life. “You seem happier than I ever remember,” his formerly estranged daughter tells him, and he’s startled to realize that she’s right.
The River Swimmer has the dreamlike quality of a fairy tale, complete with magical beings and a poor, questing hero. Thad, in love with the water that surrounds his family’s island farm and flows into Lake Michigan, taught himself to swim when he was 3. At 17, he runs afoul of a local auto dealer and staggers into the river, where he encounters a cluster of water babies, tiny creatures with human faces that his old Indian nurse had told him were the spirits of dead infants.
Spurred by this otherworldly vision, he decides to swim to Chicago, more than 100 miles away.
Harrison’s characters always seek this sense of belonging, the balm for their equally powerful sense of mortality. But belonging implies limits as well as security; going and staying alike have consequences, frequently mortal ones in Harrison’s previous work. Here, he’s achieved a mood that approximates in modern terms the tranquility of Shakespeare’s late romances. The existential uncertainties that always animate Harrison’s fiction are not so much resolved as accepted for what they are: the basic fabric of existence, from which we pluck as much happiness as we can.
Wendy Smith reviewed this book for The Washington Post.