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Fiction In 'The River Swimmer,' author Jim Harrison displays his mastery of the novella

  • Published Sunday, March 3, 2013, at 12:03 a.m.
  • Updated Sunday, March 3, 2013, at 7:03 a.m.

“The River Swimmer” by Jim Harrison (Grove Press, 198 pages, $25)

At 75, novelist and poet Jim Harrison towers over his contemporaries in talent, exuberance and style. Readers who unpack his portmanteau of literary enthusiasms (food, sex, wilderness, rivers, birds and bears, wine — to name a prominent few) must come prepared for a Whitmanesque outpouring that can easily disarm, and at times dismay, the squeamish, picayune or small-minded.

Like Whitman (and the American writers in this unique heritage — Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, the Beats), Harrison simultaneously charms, appalls, edifies, enlightens and at times overwhelms: Reading him is like breathing pure oxygen.

“The River Swimmer” consists of two novellas. As a master of the form (“Legends of the Fall”), Harrison is able to paint human portraits, which, in this case, involve his native northern Michigan as a backdrop to character dramas of age and youth.

In the first novella, “The Land of Unlikeness,” a 60-year-old painter named Clive returns to Leelanau County to care for his aging mother while his sister, Margaret, takes her first trip to Europe. Arriving home, Clive’s mom tells him, “You’re not going to live forever, Mister Bigshot,” a warning across his bow that becomes the leitmotif for a story about art, death and reconciliation, if not self-forgiveness.

Having lived a high-flying life in academia, Clive confronts failure in the form of his high-school sweetheart, Laurette, who resurrects his childhood in surprising ways, and his estranged daughter, a spirited girl from San Francisco with whom Clive finds peace on a camping trip to the Upper Peninsula.

It is amazing how much wisdom and good humor Harrison can pack into a scant 105 pages of story. Reflecting on his art career, Clive muses: “There was an obvious vulgarity to nearly all livelihoods that was disarming. Perhaps the percentage of trash in the art world was the same as that in supermarkets?”

Clive’s upper-80s mother is an inveterate bird watcher who pushes her son to self-revelations culminating in humility. “Clive woke at dawn having lost his self-importance. . . . His first thought was that art had gotten along without him for centuries and would continue to do so.”

Reuniting with his childhood love, sparks a renewed passion in Clive for painting, a discovery akin to the discovery that “the dream of the world’s idea of success” was and is surprisingly easy to give up for one’s first love. Thus, “The Land of Unlikeness” becomes a parable of self-discovery and a deeply satisfying investigation into the meaning of creation.

Sadly, the title novella, “The River Swimmer,” is a substantial failure (one of Harrison’s very few), unhappily mixing magic realism and fable.

The central character, Thad, is an 18-year-old who lives to swim and swims to live, mostly in rivers, including the river the surrounds the ancient Chippewa island on which he was born in Michigan. Thad’s father, having drowned while ice-fishing, is an absent presence in the story, while an old Indian woman named Tooth tethers the toddler Thad to a leather thong, allowing the child to swim rivers as a youth, having recognized his magical qualities.

Thad discovers a colony of “water babies” in a pond, swims to islands in Lake Superior and back (regardless of the hypothermic realities), and swims to Chicago, a journey which takes several days.

Thad is admired by two girls, one a rich townie whose father, Frank, nearly beats Thad to death in a fit of Oedipal pique, and one a rich city girl named Emily, whose father, John Scott, admires the boy and attempts to turn him into a sophisticate on a trip to Europe.

An unlikely pea soup of violence and romance, “The River Swimmer” challenges the reader to suspend disbelief for an extended period while a series of semi-comic, fairy-tale-style adventures takes place all over pages of prose studded with minor epiphanies.

We are asked to believe in the water babies as spirits of dead children, asked to believe in a 100-mile swim to Chicago, asked to believe that Thad survives being chewed up by a boat propeller.

While recovering in his bed at home, Thad vows to continue swimming. “If there was a body of swimmable water nearby he would swim it. It was his nature.” Unfortunately for this novella, no body of water seems un-swimmable to Thad. Nevertheless, even a Harrison failure has its pleasures.

Jim Harrison richly deserves our passionate attention. May he write forever. It is his nature.

Gaylord Dold is a professional writer in Wichita.

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