Legends of the Fall, a collection of three novellas, is perhaps Harrison’s most notable book. The title story became a hit movie, and a second one of the novellas was also filmed. Now, in his latest work, The River Swimmer (ISBN 978-0-8021-2073-1, 198 pages, $25), Harrison returns to this genre by giving us two novellas: “The Land of Unlikeness” and “The River Swimmer.”
The first tells the story of a 60-year-old art historian and teacher, Clive, who has returned to Michigan ostensibly to care for his ailing mother. Divorced, on the outs with his daughter, unhappy with his career and with life in general, Clive slowly discovers that returning to his boyhood home, immersing himself in the farm country in which he grew up, and encountering the old love of his high school years draw him back to his youth and his love of painting. This is the sweet, though not sentimental, story of a man who has the chance to regain a part of himself which he had thought forever lost. It also offers Harrison and the rest of us the opportunity to ponder the meaning of art and the artist in a commercial world.
The River Swimmer is also set in Michigan. Here we meet Thad, a young man who has become obsessed with swimming, particularly in rivers. Though the swimming seems an escape from the world — he takes to the water whenever trouble takes to him — in truth we see that Thad feels most alive when swimming. He has read a small library of books on the world’s rivers and hopes to write his own books on his love of water. Embroiled in a fight with his ex-girlfriend’s father, hounded by others to live a “normal life,” befriended by some strange “water babies” which he meets in a river, Thad, like Clive, is confused about his destiny and what he is do with his life. A horrible accident near the end of the story almost kills him, but also brings him into the current of his destiny.
In both novellas, as in several of his other works, particularly Legends of the Fall, Harrison explores the tension between the past and the present, between desire and duty, between the social life and solitude. Both Clive and Thad are caught up by their past, Clive by his visit home and the memories it evokes, Thad by the demands of the farm on which he has grown up. Both men, too, find themselves torn between their personal ambitions and the duties they owe to others. Clive gave up his art in part because of this conflict, and in the novella we see him finding his way back to painting. Thad’s dilemma is more immediate; the father of his new girlfriend is putting pressure on Thad to work for him, and his own family considers him a hopeless romantic in his love of the water.
In Thad and Clive, Harrison also considers, as he has done in other work and as, I suspect, he does in his personal life, the solitary life versus a more extraverted social and public life. In the end, both Clive and Thad choose to follow their “loves,” but they also recognize that some part of themselves and their past brings certain responsibilities for others.
One fetching aspect of Harrison’s writing, found in every thing I’ve ever read by him, is his ability to cram all sorts of observations into a single paragraph without losing the coherence of the character making those observations. This talent is best illustrated by example. Here, for instance, is Clive on a camping trip with his daughter when he finally declares himself a painter again:
“What would become of him? But then the task of thinking about himself was tiring like trying to comprehend the chaos theory in Science Times. Behind Sabrina there was a shade of green on a moss-colored log he had never seen before. And on that first afternoon in Marquette there had been a splotch of sunlight far out on the dark stormy lake, golden light and furling white wave crests. Time was passing as his daughter read and scrambled eggs. He had had his dream of the world’s idea of success but it was surprisingly easy to give up for his first love.”
Here we have those qualities that make Harrison so valuable as a writer: impressionistic, commanding, filled with passion and thought. And like the best of writers, he creates a mirror of his prose and holds it up before us, letting us look at ourselves, at the choices we make, at the predicament and the beauty of our lives.
The River Swimmer by Jim Harrison. Grove Press, 2013. 240 pages.