THE WOMAN LIT BY FIREFLIES By Jim Harrison Houghton Mifflin/Seymour Lawrence 247 pp. $19.95
EVER SINCE the appearance of Legends of the Fall, the three novellas Jim Harrison published in 1979, his admirers have been awaiting another superlative work of fiction from this author. Three novels have followed that collection -- Warlock, Sundog, Dalva -- all in certain respects successful and in certain respects flawed. None has had the clarity, sureness of phrase and cumulative power of the novellas. Is it fair to hold an author accountable for the expectations raised by past work? Probably not. No writer should defer to the critics, expecially when they attach greatness to specific efforts. Instead, writers should, and most do, go their own way, letting the books fall where they may.
Harrison's latest offering lands, so we must assume, exactly where he intended it. Ten years after Legends, Harrison has put together another collection of novellas, which naturally is nothing like the earlier book, though it has the same enviable quality of gaining in depth as the novellas proceed. The first, "Brown Dog," is an amiable romp in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with B.D., an orphan of uncertain lineage, more than likely part Indian, who is usually involved in something a tad illegal. While salvaging artifacts from Lake Michigan, B.D. discovers the body of an Indian sitting bolt upright on the lake's floor. More remarkably, he finds a buyer for the corpse in Chicago; and the matter of transporting the Indian, though not for mercenary purposes, constitutes whatever straight plot the story has.
As the none-too-bright 42-year-old B.D. recounts his tribulations to his girlfriend, a 24-year-old anthropologist studying Indian gravesites, Harrison indulges in a lot of fanciful cussin' and raucous sexism. Sometimes it's funny; at other times it only distracts from the tale's serious themes: B.D.'s search for an identity and the exploitation of the North American Indians' heritage. Sex and shenanigans, however, are not the problem. Rather, it's the triteness of B.D.'s persona and the predictability of his relations with women. The picaresque is nothing if not obvious, and yet Harrison, by allowing B.D. to tell his story in his own bald, profane way, wears us out long before the story is done.
"Sunset Limited" is a slightly more believable, though slicker, tale of four middle-aged ex-radicals who join forces to spring a friend locked in a Mexican jail on a trumped-up murder charge. The prisoner, "Zip," is the only one of the group who has remained faithful to the politics they shared at the University of Colorado in the '60s. The others -- two men and two women -- have become a hot-shot West Coast lawyer, a movie executive, a marginal rancher and a wildlife biologist. Lingering resentments and passions surface as the four travel to Mexico, and Harrison valiantly attempts, in too short a space, a convincing portrait of their characters. Although there are some nice touches, especially in the depiction of the rancher, Gwen, the overall plot is so facile that the people never really matter. Call it a "Big Chill" with high stakes. THE TITLE novella, which first ran in the New Yorker, represents a departure for Harrison, although it's hardly a typical New Yorker story -- unless, that is, one recalls Cheever's early short stories. Consider the bare outline: A middle-aged woman walks out on her husband and her life at a rest area somewhere along I-80 in Iowa. She walks into a cornfield, makes a rough nest for herself, and lies down to reflect. By now, midlife crisis applies equally well to women as to men, and in "The Woman Lit by Fireflies" Harrison adroitly manages to get inside a woman's mind -- no small feat for the burly, rough-looking guy on the dust jacket. To quibble with his portrayal of Clare is only to note that sometimes she seems too good to be true: smart, sensitive, well-read, well-meaning, she's also unlucky enough in life to be interesting. Her memories and her imaginary conversations with her daughter reveal a life unequal to the spirit that endured it. As she lies amid the alien corn, Clare's character takes on deeper and deeper resonance, and Harrison's voice seems finally at home with its material.
However one feels about Harrison's evolution as a writer, he is always worth a look. He continues to write beautifully about a landscape where the horizon is not foreshortened by smog or construction, and where the population density is unimaginable to city dwellers. Like Thomas McGuane, Barry Hannah and Richard Ford, whose work is alike only in its dissimilarity to the slick fictions by and about urban professionals, Harrison has a narrative voice that fairly defies the reader to ignore it. His is the method of Thackeray or Dickens; and when this authorial voice enters into the tale, it reminds us that most contemporary fictions seem content to coast along in neutral. Either that or writers seem far more concerned with conveying what they or life is about than with telling us a story. For Harrison, life is a story, and it's one that he can tell with the best of them. Arthur Krystal is a writer and critic who frequently reviews contemporary fiction.