THE SUMMER HE DIDN'T DIE
By Jim Harrison
Atlantic Monthly. 277 pp. $24
Jim Harrison is one of those American writers, like James Salter or Cormac McCarthy, whose careers have been distinguished not by huge sales but by mastery of their craft and the respect of critics, peers and serious readers. Best known for his 1979 collection of novellas "Legends of the Fall," over the past 40 years Harrison has published more than a dozen volumes of fiction, another dozen of poetry, two collections of essays, a memoir and assorted journalism that often reflects his love not only of hunting and fishing but also good food and wine. This new collection of novellas finds him in an antic, sometimes nostalgic mood, as he explores three quite different worlds -- those of a semiliterate part-Indian logger, three prosperous Michigan matrons and a writer very much like himself -- and finds their lives linked by the confusions of youth, the frustrations of marriage, the riptides of lust and the ubiquity of death.
In the first novella, "The Summer He Didn't Die," Harrison brings back Brown Dog, or B.D., who has enlivened his fiction before. B.D. lives in upper Michigan, where he keeps busy with sex, booze, hunting, fishing and petty crime. Friends call him a kindly fool, but he is a big, healthy, uncomplicated fellow, and many women find him agreeable company. In this book he dallies with a hefty dentist named Belinda: "The fact that she was a tad burly did not lessen the intensity of his fantasies, the idea that they might mate like bears in the moonlight of her backyard." He is drawn by Belinda's physical charms and also her offer of free, much-needed dental care -- the first he has received in his 49 years. As for Belinda, "she tingled all over with her good fortune of finding this wonderful backwoods nitwit." B.D. continues to lust after his social worker, Gretchen, who unfortunately for him is a "devout lesbian." It occurs to him that "he could dress up in women's clothing and she might find him temporarily acceptable." B.D.'s romantic misadventures are fun, but there is a serious side to the story. His friend Rose has been sent to prison for biting off a cop's finger. To keep himself out of prison on related charges, B.D. has agreed to marry Rose and care for her children, Red and Berry. Red is a good student and star athlete, but Berry, a girl of 9 or so, suffers from fetal alcohol syndrome. She rarely speaks but is magically attuned to the animal world. B.D. is a loving father to these children and is outraged when local officials decree that Berry must go off to a special school in Lansing. His determination to save Berry from the clutches of big government provides the story's plot and invests the hapless B.D. with a certain nobility.
The second novella, "Republican Wives," introduces three women who were sorority sisters at University of Michigan and remain like sisters in their forties. Their problem is their husbands, who have given them material comfort but little else. Martha's husband is a trust officer whom Shirley calls "the world's most boring human." Frances's Sammy is a computer geek turned millionaire who, finally persuaded to take her to Europe, spent all his time in expensive hotel suites watching the business news on CNN. Shirley, the smartest of the three, married Hal, a football hero-turned- philandering car dealer whom she compares to a hairy walrus in bed.
In college, all three slept with Daryl, the campus radical, and in middle age their husbands have driven them back into his arms, even though the women know he is worthless. At the outset, Martha, in a fit of anger, has tried to kill Daryl and then fled to Mexico. Her friends join her, and most of the story involves the three women looking back over their lives. Finally, they must return to the United States, where Martha will learn if prison awaits her. "Republican Wives" is a slight, amusing, bittersweet comment on the pitfalls of prosperity. As one wife sighs, "Money is exhausting, isn't it?"
I take the third story, "Tracking," to be Harrison's largely autobiographical, 87-page summary of his own life. Jimmy grows up poor but happy in upper Michigan. Like Harrison, he was blinded in one eye by a childhood accident. He lives on a farm, hunts and fishes and looks up his young aunt's skirt whenever possible. By age 10 he is kissing his girlfriend and dreaming of more. In his teens he discovers books, plays football and courts a cheerleader. The future writer "got the idea from the library and movies that everyone, in fact, was a story." He makes his first trip to New York and discovers Paul Gauguin and Eugene O'Neill. At 19 he drops out of college, hitchhikes back to New York and works in a bookstore. He gets his girlfriend pregnant and marries young. He works as a book salesman and writes poems at night. He has a volume of poetry published, quits his job to write and almost starves. He takes a university job, rubs elbows with Robert Lowell and William Styron, but hates the academic world and again returns to Michigan to write. His father and sister are killed by a drunk driver.
At 40, he is a celebrated writer but still has to borrow money from his father-in-law. Then Jack Nicholson offers to support him while he writes his next book. This was "Legends of the Fall," which "was sold to a studio before it was published for more than he had earned in eighteen years of marriage." Lucrative screenwriting jobs follow, but he feels he has become "a hack abusing his talents." He sees himself as "a fairly well-behaved madman" and decides that his wife of many years "was more eccentric than he was."
All this is a lightly fictionalized memoir that simply follows the arc of a writer's life. It tells us more than we may want to know about the books the author read in his youth and the philosophical musings of his maturity, but this candid look back may be of interest to those who care about the writing game or about Jim Harrison's fiercely independent life in particular.