“Brown Dog” by Jim Harrison (Grove Press, 525 pages, $27)
Few American writers – Mark Twain comes to mind, the early Hemingway of the “Nick Adams Stories” or, in short bursts, Henry Miller – leave so much of their own blood and sinew on the written page as does Jim Harrison, that fearless and open-hearted storyteller.
Nowhere in his 50-year career does so much of Harrison the man saturate the page as in his cultish and gregarious tales of Brown Dog, a part Chippewa denizen of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, sometime pulp-cutter and salvage diver, inveterate womanizer, part-time alcoholic, wily pugilist and master cook, especially of wild meat and fish.
Readers now have the opportunity to follow Brown Dog through all of his many adventures and misadventures because Grove Press has produced a handsome compilation of all the tales, including a newly written one called “He Dog,” which brings Brown Dog the man to fruition as a “legal father.” Fans of Harrison will enjoy having all of Brown Dog to hand – novellas from collections like “Woman Lit by Fireflies” (1990), “Julip” (1994), “The Beast God Forgot to Invent” (2000), “The Summer He Didn’t Die” (2005) and “The Farmer’s Daughter” (2010).
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Owning all of Brown Dog is a load. Who could forget Brown Dog the salvage diver coming upon the mummified body of a woods Indian at the bottom of Lake Superior? Or Brown Dog wandering Los Angeles in search of a stolen bear skin and the many half-pints of peppermint schnapps downed in preparation for trout fishing? The super-abundant love affairs, acrobatically drunken encounters and battles with assorted husbands and annoyed bouncers fly by like Interstate billboards.
Dogs figure prominently in the Harrison oeuvre. In “He Dog,” the new entry, two garrulous mutts named Bruno and Fred cavort throughout the plot, which, as usual, finds Brown Dog pursuing life, liberty and happiness in the arms of his lesbian girlfriend Gretchen, who gave birth to Brown Dog’s daughter out of wedlock. Stir in the idea that Brown Dog must take the place of Rollo, an injured “animal control officer,” and you have Brown Dog with a job – horror of horrors. The job lasts a few days, until B.D. decamps for Montana with Long Rita, Rollo’s half-sister, in tow on a mission to build a dog training operation for Rollo, lest he fall into alcoholism. Talk about the blind leading the blind.
Despite its libertine nature and seriously abundant political incorrectness, the core of the Brown Dog stories is a spiritual search. With a mother who died young and a father gone missing before that, B.D. needs a home and family to anchor him. We’re given to think in “He Dog” that he may have found one – a cabin and a woman and two children. We’re also given to think that he’s found his father, a Lakota warrior descended from the He Dog clan, close to Crazy Horse, and there when Custer was killed at Little Big Horn. As Harrison writes: “That night when he dreamed he didn’t have that semi-empty place. His mother had long black hair and maybe dad was outside cutting wood for the oncoming autumn or fishing for dinner. He felt cool water in his throat. They were looking after him.”
Let’s pray that Brown Dog is headed for peace of mind.