ACCORDING TO HIS PUBLISHER'S publicity material, Jim Harrison is an "outdoorsman and man of letters who lives with his family in Northern Michigan." His five novels, the same source goes on, "have received serious literary attention." Examples follow. "It is touching and slightly fearsome," writes Christopher Lehmann- Haupt of Harrison's Wolf. "This is a poet's novel, adding up to nothing but its boisterous and eloquent self." The New York Times Book Review weighs in with "an epic storyteller who deals in great vistas and vast distances." The Boston Globe hails "one of the most important writers of today." "This man can write!" says Playboy (I'd recognize that exclamation point anywhere).
These ecstasies were generated by Harrison's earlier work, of which the three novellas gathered in Legends of the Fall are worth at least a peep or two of praise. Now comes Warlock. It is so bad that the only one of these critical appraisals that could possibly apply to it is an emended version of Playboy's quote: "This man can write." But to say that "this man can write" is to say no more than the unexciting truth.
In fact, in Warlock he writes very poorly. Indeed he cannot be taken seriously as a writer because he writes sentences that teeter on the ludicrous, sentences like "He opened a can of dog food with abandon," and "He had driven Diana to work with a special intensity," and "An entire bottle of Bordeaux . . . had soothed his frayed snyapses"; and also because he more or less mauls the language, using infer when he means imply, ambivalence when he means ambiguity, and making other such condign gaffes.
He cannot be taken seriously as a novelist because Warlock at any rate, his story about an unemployed Michigan man who goes to work as a private detective for a rich doctor, is insipidly told, unbelievable in its events, devoid of even minimally credible characters, and dominated by a distasteful sexual preening. One sees, though, why he is published in men's magazines: he awkwardly articulates the Playboy reader's fascination with oral sex and fears about losing sexual potency, as if for his years of pleasure with sundry Miss Mays and Miss Junes he must pay the penalty with which priests, ministers, and rabbis once frightened young men, as if indeed that dark day were always, so to speak, at hand. His aim as a writer is to give this audience what it wants: a sexual fantasy figure with whom it may identify. He belongs, therefore, not to literary history, but to the history of hygiene.
In reading a novel as bad as Warlock your mind has to have something to do, and mine took to noticing the euphemisms Harrison employs for the male organ. My favorite is "rude rouser," but many others have undeniable appeal. Harrison uses the familiar unprintable words, of course, but it is delightful how he keeps coming up with unexpected ones like "evidence," as in "The evidence coiled and moved in his bathing suit . . ."
By contrast the female part receives no such sportive cognomens, being referred to in blunt biological terms, though I did notice it being called "the article," and smiled. I also smiled--and perhaps, in fairness and charity, I was meant to smile--at such profundities as "Sometimes the only answer to death is lunch," and "The real trouble with walking a long ways is that you usually have to walk back." How true! I only wish I had said that myself.
If you must know something of the plot, let me say that Warlock is the nickname of the hero, a 42-year-old feeb who is married to a lusty nurse. She is having an affair with his new employer, a tinkering doctor who has invented an electric tube next to which a rude rouser must look like a thin reed, and which he tests on Warlock's willing wife. The plot sets Warlock rambling in the wilds of northern Michigan; also in Florida. I read the book for pay, but you can have no such excuse.y