Friday, April 13, 2007

Jim Harrison, Returning To Earth

The end of February [27th to be exact if anyone wants to go back to that post] I wrote about having read Jim Harrisons THE ROAD HOME, which was written about ten years ago. I told friend Gary Hill and he had just read Harrison's newest book RETURNING TO EARTH. He sent it to me and I've just finished it. The parallels between the two novels are startling; I've never known a really fine writer who actually wrote the same story twice. It must be a story of great importance to Harrison, maybe something he's working through. The characters are different, the newer book is cleaner in a way which is to say less cluttered with incident. The outline is exactly the same: a man who is part Native American is dying, he effects a peaceful death after touching base with the important people in his life and satisfying his emotional needs. The death occurs in the middle of the book, then comes four or so sections in the voices of people who were close to him about how they deal with the death, how their lives go on. This seems to me a very unusual outline in today's world. The many Native American references are not at all sentimental or touchy-feely but the traditions are powerful. It is satisfying to know, or hope, some Native culture continues -- the white world sure tried like hell to eradicate it.

Harrison's people are upper mid-weterners, they travel all over the area a lot, they are involved with the outdoor world, one or more characters have a lot of inherited money that they disdain and spend without ostentation, and often with quiet generosity. There's a lot of drinking, a lot of sex and a lot of animals. The combination and the good sense writing and story, even when some characters are "goofy" or "difficult" is so unlike the self-conscious writing of urban/suburban/academic sensibilities it's more than refreshing -- it feels real and substantial. I am a midwesterner and I know about people driving all over the place; but otherwise i don't know these people but I totally believe them. I'd be happy for them to be my neighbors. Many urban readers would lose a little of their narrow, egocentric atitudes if they read Harrison ...

For a moment of levity, I received a refrigerator magnet today with a quote from Studs Terkel: "I like quoting Einstein. Know why? Nobody dares contradict you."

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