How shall we speak of Jim Harrison and what shall we call him? He is great-hearted, make no mistake. He is a grand waterfall of beautiful and terrible words and he is a dark cavern of ideas in which we find in the vast darkness, suddenly and without warning, the ochre-colored drawings of huge herds of prehistoric creatures reminding us of our true nature. He is a he-wolf, panting and wet from the snow, his teeth dripping blood.
Here is Harrison from “Games of the Night,” the third novella in a trio of novellas that constitute his exuberantly brilliant new book, “The Farmer’s Daughter,” just published by the inestimable Grove Press:
“When you lifted the lid a bit the natural world, including ourselves, offered as much darkness in human terms as light. To look at it with any clarity you certainly had to attempt to look at it through the perceptions of a million-plus other species.”
And so it is that Harrison has been counseling us, through 25 books of fiction, poetry and memoir, to abandon our selfish notions of ego and regain our common ground with our fellow man and with the other creatures who ride this planet with us around the sun. We are not alone. We are not individual. We are stardust. We are billion-year-old carbon.
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Harrison’s new book tells three stories, each about 100 pages, whole worlds conjured out of his unique philosophy and experience, part Rabelais, part hound dog.
In the first, Sarah Holcomb, the “farmer’s daughter” of the title, moves with her family to Montana’s flatlands from Indiana. Home-schooled, a brilliant pianist, and a searcher of uncompromising will, Sarah must come to terms with a sexual assault while keeping an eye on her own lust for revenge.
In “Brown Dog Redux,” Harrison revisits his recurring character B.D., a native American on the run from the Michigan police who want him to bring back a stepdaughter to be placed in a state institution. When B.D. resists (his natural response to government), he flees to Toronto. “Redux” tells the story of B.D.’s return to Michigan by nefarious means and his experiences as a sperm donor. Hilarious, ribald, entirely satisfying!
And finally, the intriguing “The Games of Night” explains the situation of a boy named Samuel who is wounded by a tropical hummingbird when his father takes him birding in Mexico.
In addition, the boy suffers a wolf bite to the neck, becoming a kind of lycanthrope, or werewolf, though his lust is not for blood but love.
Samuel, part werewolf, part hummingbird, explains: “I had resolved that because of my physical problems I had to run what people call a ‘tight ship.’
Ultimately the nature of viruses is far more interesting, complicated and mysterious than the nature of superstition which is only an amalgam of ignorance and the predictable consequences of fear.”
Harrison is the only living member of a line in American literature drawn from Whitman and Twain, through Henry Miller, writers who stand against the American predilection for materialism, greed, murder, war, national ignorance and the predictable consequences of fear.
He stands against celebrity culture, 24-hour cable TV, Wall Street, Main Street, handheld electronic devices and heroic professional sport. He stands for rivers, sex, dogs, horses, hunting, wine, moonlight on Lake Superior and the music of Patsy Cline.
Like his predecessors, and many others (think of all the poets), his is a message of solidarity with the creatures of the Earth in a godpeopled universe in which nothing can be understood apart from natural processes, all of which end in death.
His literature is a joyous ode to life at its fullest and like Dostoyevsky’s and Miller’s, stands as a bulwark against the Stalins and Carnegies who would suckle us on Twinkies, TV and war.