Jim Harrison’s latest wholly rewarding

0

With its swaths of forest and swamp, its crouching, forgotten towns and anonymous two-track roads, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is not easy landscape to decode. With few exceptions, notably early Hemingway, it is not especially familiar literary territory, either.

But it is fertile land indeed to Michigan native Jim Harrison. His latest novel, “Returning to Earth” (Grove Press, 280 pages, $24), signals a return both to this place and his standing among our best writers.

This dense and compact work is vintage Harrison, rising to the standards of “Legends of the Fall,” the 1979 trio of novellas that brought him critical acclaim, and “Dalva,” his 1988 novel about the American West. He is the author of more than 25 books of fiction, nonfiction and poetry and, thanks to a $600,000 grant, his collection of handwritten notes and correspondence will reside at Grand Valley State University.

As with most of Harrison’s fiction, the themes are as stark and inevitable as life itself: Love, loss, death, guilt, redemption. They play out in a world grounded in Upper Peninsula places such as Grand Marais and Baraga and Newberry, with clouds of black flies and Lake Superior storms and humans losing their bearings in the woods.

More like Faulkner than Hemingway in the telling, much of “Returning to Earth” is threaded around the last days of a Chippewa-Finn father and husband and laborer named Donald who is dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease at his wife’s family home in Marquette.

As he comes to terms with that, he is compelled to tell his life story to his family, one that finds him drawn deeper into the spiritual realm of Native American culture as they are drawn to carry out his dying wish. Ravens and bears, sacred in many native beliefs, crop up periodically in a narrative that arcs between the real and magical. The story unspools to encompass the family around him, his wife, their children and generations of his family before. It is told in Donald’s voice and that of several other characters.

And as such, it is not easy reading. Harrison does not extend many narrative crutches as the characters spill out their lives in memory and action, jumping around in time and place as they to make sense of their lives.

But it is told in a prose so pure and scraped of excess that a paragraph can seem a novel, a sentence a poem. Some of the novel’s most dramatic intervals erupt and depart with the stroke of a few sentences, never to be revisited. The effect can be breathtaking.

Donald meets his wife-to-be, Cynthia, at the home of her father, David, Sr., where he is called to do occasional manual labor. Her father rapes Vera, the young daughter of a Mexican worker, Jesse, at the family estate.

Years later, the story continues, David, Sr. and his son, David, travel to Mexico to a coffee farm he and Jesse jointly own. It is a central and cathartic moment in the novel and yet its violence is all but whispered.

Donald relates the result: “Jesse and the dad had a drunken squabble and fight and Vera’s son steps in with a machete. David and his dad were pushed out in the Gulf of Mexico in a rowboat and since the old man was about dead anyway David shoved his father overboard.”

The moment passes. The narrative moves on.

Much later in the story, Cynthia relates her first close encounter with Donald as he digs out the foundation at her father’s garage. Two sentences reveal why he is the love of her life.

“I said to Donald, ‘Why don’t you look at me?’ and then he did. I was immediately conscious of the fact that he was the man on earth least like my father.”

But she and the others must deal with his passing, the event that frames this novel. After his unorthodox burial, their daughter, Clare, veers toward her father’s spirituality as she retreats to a homemade bear den and looks for him in the reincarnated form of a bear. Cynthia is intrigued by that possibility as the novel closes.

There is an earlier image of death, one that evokes the natural and mystic worlds of this novel and the smudged line that separates them. Donald is on a three-day vision quest in which he imagines his own death years before it happens. On this quest, he allows that he was “lucky enough to have my body fly over the countries of earth and also walk the bottom of the ocean, which I’d always been curious about.”

He dreams. A bear comes around. Three ravens stare at him from the ground and he tells them about a “funeral of their kind” he had seen near Whitefish Point a few years before: “A real old raven had fallen slowly down through the branches of a hemlock tree over a period of two hours, grabbing hold of a branch now and then with his or her last strength, while around the bird about three dozen of his kind were whirling.

“I heard the soft sound when he finally hit the ground.”

Advertisement
SHARE