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Jim Harrison’s new novellas explore the nature of self and self-discovery

By Wendy Smith,

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.”

“Daffy” isn’t a word usually associated with Harrison. He’s better 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.

Granted, Clive doesn’t seem blithe or sweet at first in “The Land of Unlikeness.” He’s 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.” (Such compromise is rarely evident in Harrison’s fiction, which is notable for its precise, evocative prose.) 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 during the summer of 2009 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 and just do what he wants. “You seem happier than I ever remember,” his formerly estranged daughter tells him, and he’s startled to realize that she’s right. All he had to do was give up “his dream of the world’s idea of success.”

“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, who breaks Thad’s cheekbone with a barrel stave when he finds the boy with his daughter. Thad 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. Along the way, he is succored by some wealthy fishermen, a drug-dealing cousin, and another willing female, this one the daughter of a commercial real estate magnate. Thad has a chance to marry the princess, or at least use her father’s money to fulfill his ambition to swim in great rivers around the globe. Although mildly repulsed by the idea of becoming a rich girl’s plaything, he’s sorely tempted; swimming is “the only activity that gave him total pleasure and a sense of absolutely belonging on Earth.”

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; it’s no accident that Clive and Thad are both farm boys drawn to adventures “out in the world.” 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.

Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America,” which will be reissued this spring.

THE RIVER SWIMMER By Jim Harrison Grove. 198 pp. $25

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