THIS BOOK OPENS with a vulure's-eye view of a wounded man in the desert. A few pages later, we watch from the vantage point of a stone statue as the man and his mistress are beaten and abducted. "For it is best to have stone eyes foe what we are going to see," the narrator warns.
Stone eyes are needed to read much of what happens in Legends of the Faill. A woman is mutilated, drugged, and imprisoned in a brothel; a man cold-bloodedly hurls another from a seventh-story window; a soldier scalps his enemies and, restored to civilian life, splits a man's head with a manure fork.
These violent, compelling novellas startled, angered and disturbed me; they also fascinated me, kept me reading and gave me much to think about afterwards. They are, beyond question, the work of a gifted and accomplished writer.
They tell of men who seek revenge on their enemies. Cochran, in "Revenge," pursues the thugs who have brutalized him and kidnapped his Mexican lover. Nordstorm, in "The Man Who Gave Up His Name," kills a gangster who has threatened him and his family in a restaurant. Tristan Ludlow, in the title story, avenges firs the death of his younger brothers in war and then of his half-Indian wife, accidentally killed by federal agents.
This vengeance brings a kind of religious ecstasy. For Cochran, the need for revenge is "enough to alter his course of life radically, somewhat in the manner that conversion, the sacrament of baptism, not the less an upheaval for being commonplace, alters the Christian, satori the Buddhist." At the end of his quest, he finds mystical unity with his beloved at the moment of her death-and reconciliation with the man who has wronged her and him. Nordstrom, a businessman wo has studied modern dance, leaves behind his old life and finds that "the point was to dancing in your brain all the time." Tristan confronts death and finds "that state which mystics crave but he was ill-prepared for:all things on earth both living and dead were with him and owned the same proportion...."
Few writers can supass Harrison at rendering vividly the sights, smells, and sounds of this world-the pleasures of dancing and hunting, the angular beauty of the Amercian midwest, "the odor of the evening air: dung and sweet cloves, crushed and rotting flowers, the smell of overheated rocks and sand fading into night."
As a narrator, he is adventurous and gifted. The novella is a magical form; these three seem strongly influenced by the work of Heinrich von Kleist, the 18th-century German master who was a forerunner of Kafka and whose elliptical, manic style inspired E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime . "Revenge," with its Latin Amercian setting and doomed lovers, echoes Kleist's "The Earthquake in Chile," while "Legends of the Fall," in its tale of a man driven to the outlaw life by an arbitrary state, recalls Kleist's "Michael Kohlhaas."
But despite its virtues, Legends of the Fall is not for everyone. Harrison writes about-and, I think, almost completely for-men. Women play an important but small part in this book, as mates, mothers, temptresses-and, most often, as portents of doom: "doom always owining the furthest, darkest reaches of the feminine gender. Pandora, Medusa, the Bacchantes, the Furies, are female though small goddesses beyond sexual notions." Contact between men and women is always sexual, usually silent, and often disastrous: "the certainly accidental cohesion of two souls and bodies, often resulting in terror and unhappiness because so much previously unknown energy is released."
In fact, it seems fair to say that Legends of the Fall is a collection of fairy tales for men. That is not to disparage its craft, power or worth-such tales have always been a sophisticated form of literature, important for their exemplary role in teaching people how to overcome evil and enjoy goofness. The three heores in this book are clearly fantasy figures, male wish-ful-fillments. They are physically vigorous; they have their way with women when theywant them and are free of entanglememts when they choose to be. They are also, like the folk hero with the bottomless purse, fabulously, effortlessly rich.
Cochran is befriended by a mysterious-box full of currency; Nordstrom makes an improbably large fortune in the oil and wholesale book businesses. Even after he has given away his money as a gesture of renunciation, he can buy his daughter a new BMW, host magnificent meals in New York restaurants, and take a palatial suite at the Carlyle. Tristan is the heir to a cattle ranch; from his grandfather he receives a schooner and crew, and he enriches himself further smuggling opium and whiskey.
Because these men are everything most men wish to be, their stories have a terrible power. They speak to the reader's deepest hopes and fears about himself. It is this that troubled me most about Legends of the Fall .By the example of his heroes, Harrison is holding up a view of manhood - self-sufficiennt, violent, strong, antisocial - that seems to be losing currency in this country. I happen to think that the passing of these values is, on the whole, a good thing. From my own experience I believe that vengeance leads seldom to beatitude; and more often to frenzy, isolation, and grief.
This book challenged that belief; Harrison's magic worked on me as well, and I am grateful. If a book can shock and anger a reader, and then leave him pondering the questions it has raised, it is a good book. Only a prig would demand to agree with it as well. Thus, with some misgivings, I recommend Legends of the Fall . Read it with stone eyes. CAPTION: Picture, Jim Harrison, by Bob Wargo