By Jim Harrison
Grove. 525 pp. $27
Because much of his fiction is set in northern Michigan, Jim Harrison has been dodging Hemingway comparisons for most of his nearly 50-year career. Both have written about hunting, fishing and looking for love in the gorgeous stretch of land where the Great Lakes meet. And both have an enthusiasm for red meat, liquor and guns. But Harrison grew up in farm country and lived in both the Lower Peninsula and the rugged Upper Peninsula, while Hemingway was summer people, a rich kid from the Chicago suburbs. Harrison once referred to Hemingway as “a kind of woodstove that didn’t give off much heat.” This insult is in part a bear marking his territory, but it’s also a writer making an aesthetic claim.
Harrison’s claim is about the transcendence of wildness. Unlike Hemingway’s famously whittled-down prose, Harrison’s is exuberant. Many of his characters don’t care what society thinks. They want freedom, outside the mainstream, unburdened by the responsibilities of modern life. And no one better embodies this ideal than Brown Dog, a.k.a. B.D., a lusty, impulsive half-Chippewa with a rap sheet that includes “the illegal diving on, stealing, and selling of old sunken ship artifacts in Lake Superior, the stealing of an ice truck to transport the body of a Native in full regalia found on the bottom of Lake Superior, the repeated assaults on the property and encampment of University of Michigan anthropologists who were intent on excavating an ancient Native graveyard”; plus other offenses: flight to avoid prosecution, scrapes in Montana, Canada and California; and countless drunk-and-disorderly citations.
Harrison is arguably America’s foremost master of the novella. Among his 36 books, he has written seven collections comprising 20 novellas, two of which became films (“Legends of the Fall” and “Revenge”). I’ve admired his work since grad school in Ann Arbor, and I can’t think of a better writer on the clash of humans and the natural world. He’s a force of nature on the page. So I was curious to read this new collection of all the Brown Dog novellas, including an unpublished one. I wanted to know how B.D.’s misadventures, which mostly serve as comic relief in the other collections, add up.
This book has many of the features of a picaresque novel. It’s episodic, built more on memorable scenes than steadily rising action. Brown Dog is an orphan whose mother died in her 20s and whose father drowned a year later. He’s poor, living from deer-hunting cabin to tent to tar-paper shack, working odd jobs to get by. He’s a ne’er-do-well who refuses to live by society’s rules and thus enacts our dreams of escape, our desire to tell off the boss and light out for the territory. He snaps back at cops who harass him; he drinks heartily and fills his belly, allowing Harrison to indulge in descriptions of food that can make even road kill sound delectable.
Most of all, Brown Dog is capable of charming women of every age, shape, class, sexual persuasion and level of sobriety to sleep with him. “Gretchen’s arched butt seemed to be aimed at his heart,” Harrison writes. “His lonely penis moved in his trousers as if awakening on a lovely May morning.” That penis gets a workout in this book, which could as accurately have been titled “Horn Dog.” The scenes are funny and entertaining and underscore the extent to which Brown Dog is more mammal than man, more a part of nature than the civilized world. But over the long haul of more than 500 pages, the skirt-chasing, the skirmishes, the drinking, the run-ins with the law, even the out-of-state escapes and returns can grow repetitious. And when Brown Dog settles down, helping to raise three kids by two different lovers, his domestication, particularly in the final story, feels a bit forced upon him.
Harrison calls this book a collection of novellas, and the pieces remain as they were originally published. Yet I have to wonder if, with significant cuts — though not to Hemingway’s level of restraint — these installments from Brown Dog’s life could have been reworked into a rip-roaring great read.
Shreve’s fourth novel, “The End of the Book,” will be published in February.
By Jim Harrison