The River Swimmer and The Land of Unlikeliness
Are you familiar with the old koan about how you cannot step into the same river twice? I’m certain Jim Harrison was. I never read a work by Harrison that I didn’t like and, more importantly, one that didn’t make me revere him as a writer.
Harrison (1937-2016) was never afraid to break literary conventions. That was evident in this, one of his last books of his novellas, The River Swimmer. Another of my all-time favorites was the three-novella collection, Legends of the Fall, titled after one if them. Jim Harrison was, to my mind, a naturalist, working the same vein as the likes of Theodore Dreiser, Frank Norris, Jack London and of course its father, Emile Zola. He mined his own experiences living in rural northern Michigan, although he was a restless soul and lived many other places as well. He took a BA and MA in comparative literature at Michigan State (as I took the same two degrees at Cal State Sonoma). He lost an eye in an accident at an early age, but it did not deter him from becoming a prolific writer—or thinker.
Jim Harrison was best known for his novellas, a form which, IMO, he labored over like a chef perfecting an entree. The two novellas in The River Swimmer couldn’t be more dissimilar: the eponymous one the story of a young man who is a natural swimmer who undertakes epic long swims (across the Great Lakes, no less!) without ease—one of which results in some rather unsavory self-discovery. The other, “The Land of Unlikellness,” a story about a semi-successful painter who returns to visit his elderly mother and perhaps reconcile with his estranged daughter, portrays a comic element in his wishing to paint that portion of his teenaged lover’s body which he had never been able to know.
Yet in these novellas the story itself is subordinate to the stylistics of Harrison’s writing. He crafts long sentences and passages which transport the reader into the characters’ minds and the narrator’s perception of them with a fluency, a fluidity, that’s quite remarkable:
“Now he was speculating whether or not Laurette would pose half-nude on the car seat. The whole idea was preposterously silly but why not? It was no more cheeky than the idea of his resuming painting. Part of the grace of losing self-importance was the simple question ‘Who cares?’ More importantly, he didn’t want to be a painter, he only wanted to paint., two utterly different impulses. He had known many writers and painters who apparently disliked writing and painting but just wanted to be writers and painters. They were what Buckminster Fuller might have called “low-energy constructs.” Clive didn’t want to be anything any longer that called for a title. He knew how to paint so why not paint. Everybody had to do something while awake.
“When he got back to his whale room he e-mailed Laurette asking if she would pose then hastily did a seven-by-nine of a particularly dense clump of pale green willow branches, more than vaguely abstract as you would have to be a willow fan to have any idea what you are seeing. Before bedtime he did the same clump of willow branches through a pane of beveled glass with the moon behind it that was even more inscrutable. As he dropped off to sleep he was as delighted with his oil painting as a dog would have been with the freshly butchered shin bone.”
Unlikeliness. What a great title! Harrison’s prose is clearly rich with content and references and emotion and all the other things we writers are taught as essential to evocative prose. But instead of the staccato that seems to come from pounding a keyboard, Harrison’s prose feels like a writer writing longhand with a quill or a fountain pen. It flows like a river filled with nuance. Even as you’re drawn to the next sentence, paragraph, page, you want to reread that wonderful passage you just finished.
It may be said (with no lack of respect) that some authors write the same novel time and again. Perhaps they’re trying each time to “get it right.” This can be seen, for example, in the novels of John Irving and Gillian Flynn. Not so with Jim Harrison; each work was quite distinct, a treasure in its own right. The other aspect of his works which I admire is that his own personality and life are not behind a thin veil in his characters, even though one could, if one chose to do so, plot his works along the course of his life to some extent. But it wouldn’t matter. His works have legs of their own.
Harrison wrote, “Clive didn’t want to be anything any longer that called for a title. He knew how to paint so why not paint.” Like Jim, I know how to write, so why not skip the honorifics and just write. You’re right on, Jim.