The River Swimmer: Novellas (Anglais) Relié – 17 janvier 2013
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In "The Land of Unlikeness," a man must choose between "the world's idea of success" and his love of creating art. Twenty years divorced and three years estranged from his daughter, Clive still hasn't gotten his life together. A former artist who abandoned painting for the financial security of academia, Clive is taking an involuntary leave of absence following an unfortunate encounter with an Art Tart. At his sister's insistence, he is using the time to visit his elderly bird-watching mother at his childhood home in Michigan. Since this is the mother who, years earlier, made a speech at dinner that ended with "You failed us, son," it's easy to understand why Clive doesn't want to go home again. Clive's thoughts are occupied by missed opportunities and mild regrets, some of which pertain to a childhood flame who still lives in town. Still, in his less sullen moments, Clive displays the guarded optimism that is common in Harrison's characters: "He had the happy thought that he had zero percent financing on the rest of his life because no one more than nominally cared except himself. He might be going mad as a hatter but it hadn't been that bad so far." At the age of sixty, well into life's third act, can Clive stop "toting around his heavy knapsack of ironies" and find a way to allow "a little light ... to peek into his beleaguered soul"?
"The River Swimmer" tells an offbeat story. Thad grew up on an island in the middle of a river. When he wasn't working on the family farm, he was swimming. "If there were indeed water spirits they had a firm hold on him like love eventually does on young men, an obsessional disease of sorts." After brawling with Friendly Frank, his girlfriend's father, Thad swims the hundred miles from Muskegon to Chicago. He hooks up with a girl he meets along the way. To Thad's embarrassment, the girl and her wealthy father become involved in his family drama when Friendly Frank's employees put Thad's father in the hospital, an outgrowth of the confrontation between Thad and Frank. Thad doesn't want to hate Friendly Frank, but "surely part of the greatest evil of evil men is that they make you hate them." Soon he finds himself back on the farm, in the company of Frank's daughter, the wealthy man's daughter, and another girl he's bedded. Women and employers and swimming coaches have plans for Thad. With his whole life ahead of him, Thad doesn't want to be pinned down like a butterfly in a collection. As Thad transitions to adulthood, he is desperate to retain his freedom, his sense of adventure, his profound link to water. Yet in the end, he learns that life can't be planned.
Both stories are populated with quirky characters. The earthy characters in "The River Swimmer" are particularly engaging. As always, Harrison's writing is filled with sharp insight as he gently dissects his characters, exposing faults and revealing quintessential goodness. It would be difficult to read these stories without a continual smile, although "The River Swimmer" turns out to be the more serious of the two. I would give 4 stars to "The Land of Unlikeness" and 5 to "The River Swimmer," for a combined verdict of 4 1/2 stars.
More to the point, the first novella in this collection is absorbing, well-paced, and good. The second, "The River Swimmer," contains some of the best Harrison writing I've read: The story is detailed, well-paced, "builds" steadily, and is written in something, I think, like "magical realism." I think Harrison takes some chances in this narration, and it pays off with a story I'll not soon forget. Like it and want to read something else by Jim Harrison? I suggest A Woman lit by Fireflies (novella), The English Major (a recent novel), and Off to the Side (essays). Good luck and welcome to the club!
The River Swimmer contains two novellas, The Land of Unlikeness and The River Swimmer. Like many of Harrison's works, they are stories about unusual rites of passage that are both private and social. Strong but human characters struggle through these passages toward ultimate redemption, making messes as they go.
In The Land of Unlikeness, Harrison writes of a former artist and professor whose life is in shambles. By returning to his place of origin to visit his mother, he slowly forges for himself the rite of passage that allows him to rediscover the happiness of painting he had known as a child. Grounding himself once again in the long-lost land, he remembers his own identity that had fed his early creative efforts. He again becomes a careful observer of the landscape as he redefines the meaning of art itself.
In the second novella, The River Swimmer, Harrison somehow turns magical realism into what seems like logical and natural phenomena. The story's central character is a young man whose goal in life is to swim many rivers under various conditions. Against such a simple seeming goal, the world conspires to build obstacles. He learns quickly that easy offers of freedom often come at a cost of being controlled by others. Overcoming these obstacles helps form the plot of the story, even as the main character strives to be the swimmer he wants to be. The rite of passage here becomes one of finding a way to practice what is basically a solo activity --- swimming rivers that are no more dangerous than the social world around him. Ultimately, passage comes from being able to swim in both environments.
Harrison writes with a beautiful, haunting grace that reflects his insights and observations of the world. The River Swimmer gives the reader a powerful example of how one goes about the task of putting everything except the kitchen sink into a fictional story and making it work. The reader is left wanting more, asking, "Where is the sink?" Harrison is no doubt using the sink to mix his next batch of characters and plots. His many fans already wait to see what is next.
The author demonstrates repeatedly an impeccable ability to capture what is on the mind of older, intellectual guys with rough, raunchy edges. Clive is basically fed up with the pretence of job titles and prestige. He simply wants to paint; in particular he wants to paint his sexy high school friend Laurette in a somewhat compromising position.
Thad is the more sympathetic character; he is so new to the world. He simply has not the worldly experience of Clive to fully comprehend a series of events that are uprooting his life. Unfortunately, tragedy stalks the attractive teenager.
As usual, the book is easy reading. Plot is minimal. Clive's travel and wanderings are merely excuses for much reflection on life and past loves. Clive's story ends a bit abruptly, but he will make it. Thad - we will worry about him.
Of late, it seems to me, his writing has become outsized - more crude than comic and preoccupied more and more with geezer hood, its lusty appetites for food, wine and women bloated and out of control. I've been enjoying his work not as much as I had.
Up until I picked up the "River Swimmer." He's gotten his unbridled enthusiasms and lustiness a little bit in check. And his writing is better for it. The novella that gives his latest book its title is as dreamy and mesmerizing as anything Harrison has written.
Thad, the farm boy swimmer of this picaresque story, is drawn to water the way a magnet attracts metal. Water, mainly water flowing between the banks of a river, is his obsession. He swims at every chance, Midwestern winters included. He dreams of swimming the Nile, risking being bitten in half by a hippo. He fantasizes about slicing through Gulf Stream currents. When the opportunity presents itself, he navigates the rivers on a swim south from Upper Michigan to Chicago.
But it's in a deep pool in a river near his home that Thad encounters the "water babies," the magical underwater infants who just may be the souls of lost children. These mystical cherubs present Thad with a world of wonderment that shapes his experience and view of humanity. The aquatic creatures, which only he encounters, knock his sensibility off kilter and leave the farm boy feeling "victimized by the miraculous."
Narrative drive isn't what gives Harrison's stories their buzz. Action, for Harrison, is never as important as the reaction his characters have to the natural world around them, the adventures they face and how they fit in with their environment.
The opening story in the book, "The Land of Unlikeness," concerns an old duffer, an Ivy League professor, 60-year-old Clive. He is an unaccomplished artist who turns away from his academic career to return home to the family farm in Upper Michigan to care for and abide by the instructions and demands of his zany mother. Half blind but a keen observer of birds and acutely tuned into the rich variety of sounds they make, she is among Harrison's array of memorable characters, a person who never stops offering her son the advice she feels he still needs.
Using the homecoming to his best advantage, Clive loses his sense of self-importance. Soon after, he oddly feels his dead soul begin to come back to life. The visit home then becomes an opportunity to take a road trip and renew his relationship with his estranged daughter.
Best of all, the trip home gives Clive the chance to once again ogle his high-school girlfriend Laurette, now 60, with a very pleasurable though "fleeting glance at her admirable bottom." Laurette fuels Clive's libido and he finds himself ordering painting supplies for a nude study of Laurette, a painting he's had in his mind for decades. Like Thad, Clive is awakened to what it means to be human.
I'm Harrison's age and yet I rely on him as I would a father to give me my life's lessons, and not incidentally for having reminded me of the benefits to body and soul of trout fishing. Harrison has Clive say at one point that everyone has to do something while they're awake and with his new-found pragmatism Clive thinks "so why not paint?" I've broadened that notion and applied it to Harrison's body of work. Like all of us, I have to do something while I'm awake and as far as I'm concerned, I'm planning to continue reading whatever Harrison cares to write.