Review: ‘The River Swimmer’ by Jim Harrison

Categories: Chicago Tribune

February 10, 2013

By MARK GUARINO | Chicago Tribune

The lost men who typically populate the work of Jim Harrison often commit to two primal needs: to eat extremely well and to deeply ruminate about life before, during and long after dinner is consumed.

His newest volume, a pair of novellas titled "The River Swimmer," spends copious amount of time with both. The two men in this outing are aging bookends: Clive, a 60-year-old academic from New York City who rediscovers his childhood passion for painting during a visit to his childhood home in Michigan's Lower Peninsula, and Thad, a 17-year-old budding hydrologist who can't keep himself out of the water, even if it means making the 100-mile journey to Chicago chest-high in Lake Michigan.

Clive, of "The Land of Unlikeness," is the more appealing half, most likely because he can be so easily traced to Harrison, a writer who is likewise obsessed with thoughts on fine art, ecology, poetry, women and where to order the best pickled bologna in Michigan. Harrison's protagonist returns to his childhood home to temporarily care for his mother, a scenario that allows his sister, the homebound caretaker, to take an inaugural vacation in Europe.

The premise is familiar and unravels just as expected: Clive tromps around the farmland setting, reacquainting himself with his schoolboy crush, foraging through his childhood artifacts, feeling guilty over not quitting college to keep the family farm running, reuniting with his only daughter and ultimately following his inclination toward painting again, after chucking it 20 years earlier in favor of a more lucrative career in appraising artwork for the gilded class.

Harrison presents Clive as a comic fumbler in his new setting: For the trip, he has packed his Italian loafers and martini shaker, and after he arrives, he rattles off his favorite Parisian hotels as if it's the morning grocery list, logs time on his childhood bed tearing over Caravaggio paintings, recalls a party he attended where Tommy Hilfiger complimented his clothing and laments that a yearly income of $200,000 is satisfactory, but really, could be much better, considering his line of work.

What a bore. No surprise then, when during one of his lectures, a female arts activist (a member of a group named the Art Tarts, no less) splashes a canister of yellow paint on his suit, guerrilla style and his public humiliation is confirmed once the video goes viral.

Indeed, women loom large in this story, as they're the ones whom Harrison portrays as fully alive, prodding his mawkish protagonist to bloom. His 85-year-old mother, half-blind, may appear like just another wiseacre matriarch, but she is fully realized, with a boyfriend on the side as well as an eagle eye for cataloging both bird sightings and her son's foibles and triumphs.

Besides his mother, estranged daughter, an ex-wife and a former student he fantasizes about visiting in nearby Fort Wayne, the woman who is central to Clive's reawakening is Laurette, the sexual object of his teenage years. She still lives down the road, yet this is no misty-eyed reunion; Harrison positions Laurette as a feisty combatant of ambiguous sexuality and foul mouth. She dresses him down at a cocktail party, but eventually agrees to become the subject of his painting — re-enacting a sexual memory she left him with several decades earlier. "I don't know much, but I know what I think," she says in a moment of stoned candor. She's a maddening foil who lights up these pages.

Many phrases ache with writerly prose ("He was outside in the twilight looking up at a gathering of stratocumulus clouds"), and too often Harrison forces the obvious ("Was the ambition to be an artist or to have a meteoric career as an artist, two quite different things?").

Still, by setting Clive's journey to such a slow and steady pace, each mundane development feels transformational. It includes an ending epiphany that is so slight, it's easily missed. When it occurs, trumpets don't sound, and confetti doesn't drop, but we realize that, for Clive, there's no turning back.

"The River Swimmer," the shorter and slighter of the two novellas, is less oblique and crowbarred with melodramatic stock elements that feel lifted from daytime television: a dastardly villain, an absurd bench trial, a clueless rich benefactor, a wise Native American nanny, two comely young women who vie for the protagonist's hand and dialogue so wooden, it could supply a bench factory for a year.

At the center is Thad, who is drawn to water and swimming, even if it means risking his life, which often is the case. Cue magic realism, which is written to not feel very magical, focusing on "water babies," Thad's otherworldly obsession below the water's surface. Harrison is hazy on details other than suggesting they develop from the souls of dead infants and occasionally pop above water, almost like Al Capp's Shmoo, to say hello.

Thad is written to sound less like a high school junior and more like a mouthpiece for Harrison, which gives the writer license to stop and start his prose with a wide range of critiques on topics such as architecture, European tourism and marriage, which results in ponderous reflections such as "he viewed early marriage as banal as swimming the English Channel." They are areas Harrison explored in the past but with lighter hammering at the keys.

The dense clutter of stock characters and plot twists threatens to diminish the story's more sensual explorations, such as when Thad rolls into the water almost against his will and is carried off into the current.

Nevertheless, returning to our natural state is always a potent theme in Harrison's work, and here it's no less intoxicating, even at a glimpse.

Mark Guarino is a staff writer for the Christian Science Monitor, where he covers national news out of the Midwest.

"The River Swimmer"

By Jim Harrison, Grove, 198 pages, $25

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