Saturday, December 19, 2009
Jim Harrison: The Masculine Mystique
Don’t be fooled by the trout, the dogs, the pickup trucks, the whiskey, the cowboys and Indians, and the war stories. Beneath the rugged trappings of Jim Harrison’s manly fiction hides the tensile, scorch-proof frame of the red-hot romance, whose heroes are totems of an idealized, brute masculinity. In the feminine version of the genre, the heroines typically possess awesome powers of desirability. In Harrison’s spin, the male leads aren’t much to look at (usually), yet they possess awesome powers of desire. Whether a whippersnapper of 12 or a “geezer rancher” in his 70s, the Harrison hero unfailingly sparks the ardor of any girl or woman he encounters, even when he’s sick, drunk and drugged, having his teeth pulled, passing kidney stones or dying. He doesn’t mind if a woman is a few decades older than he is or half a century younger; whether she’s a king-size Lakota divorcée pushing 60 or a “miniature” young nurse with a boyfriend. Nor does he care if she’s cruel or kind, married or single, straight or gay. Whoever she is, if she’ll have him, he’s up for the job.
Harrison’s new collection, “The Farmer’s Daughter” — a title redolent of Merle Haggard or off-color barroom jokes or both, depending on your referents — contains three stories that feature, among their sprawling casts, several lusty adolescent boys (including one with a clubfoot and one who’s a werewolf); an aged rancher, who, at 73, on his “last conscious day” of life, gingerly gropes a 14-year-old girl who curtseys in thanks; and a handful of men in their prime, including a depraved country fiddler, a vegetable farmer, a piano-playing Mexican botanist and the author’s best-known character, a hapless, oft-jailed, half-Indian “kindly fool” named Brown Dog (B.D. for short).
B.D.’s picaresque adventures first appeared in 1990 in Harrison’s “Woman Lit by Fireflies,” re-emerged in several later collections and here resurface in the story “Brown Dog Redux,” which finds B.D. as benighted and bold as ever. He regards himself as a champion of womankind because he’s “greatly drawn to women with none of the hesitancy of his more modern counterparts who tiptoed in and out of women’s lives wearing blindfolds, nose plugs, ear plugs and fluttering ironic hearts.” Also, when contemplating what he reverently calls the “sacred muffin,” B.D. is capable of “clapping in hearty applause.” Fair enough — but when he jokes to a lesbian whom he’s got in his sights that “they used to say that if a girl is big enough she’s old enough,” he loses some crossover appeal. Harrison’s Montana and Upper Peninsula Michigan make fine playgrounds for old men, but the terrain isn’t terribly hospitable to women of any age.
Nevertheless, Harrison, like Brown Dog, seems to worship the female sex, in his way. In the title story of this new book, he chivalrously seeks both vigilante and poetic justice for his precocious heroine, a tall, busty teenager named Sarah, who grows up in the 1980s in rural Montana, “where the passage between girl and woman is a short voyage.” Neglected by her taciturn father and abandoned by her “inane” mother, Sarah hunts antelope; plays Liszt like a prodigy; reads Dickinson, Faulkner and Henry Miller; daydreams of a career in metallurgy; and sunbathes semi-nude to turn on her “best friend,” a septuagenarian codger with a heart of gold. She feels a little sheepish about it, but then, there aren’t any high school heartthrobs within lassoing distance, and a girl’s got to whet her allure on someone.
“Sarah wasn’t mentally comfortable with the biological aspects of life,” Harrison writes reproachfully but kindly, like a literary Euell Gibbons. Still, after joining 4-H to pad her teenage-friend base, she soon finds grounds for her mental discomfort. After spending an innocent afternoon boozing and skinny-dipping with new pals, she drops by a rodeo where an evil horse hauler dopes and abuses her. After the attack, Harrison depicts her in a canyon, on a boulder, privately mourning her woes. “She began inevitably to look at males as another species,” he writes. “Not that she could summon up any special admiration for women.”
However well-motivated the author’s pity, however imaginative his ventriloquism of Sarah’s inner monologue, the portrait that emerges doesn’t feel age-appropriate; it recalls those medieval paintings in which the artist painted the child as a diminutive adult, with eerily progeriatric features. In a spirit of self-preservation, Sarah decides she has “no choice but to become prematurely older and austere,” and devises a scheme for vengeance. In 100 pages, the farm-girl Lolita turns Clint Eastwood — two fantasies in one. But when chance throws her in the path of an amorous 35-year-old aesthete, she gets another crack at Lolita. “I’m older than you in most ways,” she tells the man. However many ways there are, none of them are legal.
“Brown Dog Redux,” still bawdy but more believable, continues the quest of B.D. — the Upper Peninsula’s Chippewa Odysseus — to find a humane living environment for his stepdaughter, Berry, who suffers from the double burdens of fetal alcohol syndrome and encroaching adolescence. Berry can’t speak, but she communes with nature, cooing like a dove, calling crows and bonding with snakes and other wild creatures — she’s a child of the forest. In a previous story, B.D. transported her illegally from Michigan to Canada to keep her out of an institution for the disabled in Lansing. In Toronto, enlisting the help of a Lakota social worker called the Director, B.D. indulges his customary lip-smacking appetites as he looks after Berry’s welfare, chowing down on corned tongue and brisket, pork steak, fried T-bone, fatty rib steaks (“his favorite cut”) and a hearty menu of feminine flesh — Deidre, Nora, Gretchen and the Director, among others.
As he rides the bus back to the United States, confusing the “roar of the bus engine with that of a female bear he used to feed his extra fish when he was reroofing a deer cabin,” B.D. dreams of the engrossing exertions of fishing, of dancing at powwows (“a state of being carried away that reminded him of the pleasure of being half-drunk rather than fully drunk”) and of the “landscape he called home, dense forests of pine, hemlock, tamarack and aspen surrounding great swamps and small lakes.” When he’s not on the bus, he lives in the moment, caught up in the meat of the day and the heat of the night. He “felt lucky,” Harrison writes, “that he could resolve his own problems with a couple of beers and a half dozen hours of trout fishing and if a female crossed his path whether fat or thin, older or younger, it was a testament that heaven was on earth rather than somewhere up in the remote and hostile sky.” Flush with the uncomplicated enjoyment of his physical being, Harrison’s hero fills three dimensions and more — on occasion exceeding the confines of his character to recite Longfellow to wow a lady or take in a National Geographic special on Siberia, flatteringly reflecting his creator’s interests.
In the third story, “The Games of Night,” Harrison employs magical elements to make his themes more palatable. When the unnamed 12-year-old protagonist is seduced by a lubricious seventh-grade classmate, the author tenderly records their underage play. A little later, during a bird-watching expedition to Mexico with his ornithologist father, the boy is bitten by both a wolf and a hummingbird. Through a mysterious transformation — like the one in which Peter Parker turns into Spider-Man — he becomes a demon lover, and satisfies his new cravings posthaste with a sensual, willing, older, married woman. After their tussle, he fortifies himself by feasting on a bowl of tripe. Not that long before, the boy, like the farmer’s daughter in Montana, had felt oppressed by the demands of physicality. “I was getting my nose rubbed in the animality of people,” he fretted. But if there’s one thing Harrison knows, it’s how to teach his characters to share his sensual hunger and relish their role in his supernaturally charged natural world. Whether his readers can tuck in with similar gusto is a question of taste — and perhaps of glands.
Posted by Chris Mansel at 1:57 PM