Thursday, March 14, 2019
Published January 2013 by Grove/Atlantic Inc.
The River Swimmer is Jim Harrison at his most memorable: two men, one young and one older, confronting inconvenient loves and the encroachment of urbanity on nature, written with freshness, abundant wit, and profound humanity. In “The Land of Unlikeness,” Clive—a failed artist, divorced and grappling with the vagaries of his declining years—reluctantly returns to his family’s Michigan farmhouse to visit his aging mother. The return to familiar territory triggers a jolt of renewal—of ardor for his high school sweetheart, of his relationship with his estranged daughter, and of his own lost love of painting. In “The River Swimmer,” Harrison ventures into the magical as an Upper Peninsula farm boy is irresistibly drawn to swimming as an escape, and sees otherworldly creatures in the water. Faced with the injustice and pressure of coming of age, he takes to the river and follows its siren song all the way across Lake Michigan.
Jim Harrison is one of those authors who I’ve been reading about for years but never actually reading. I mean, I own one of his physical books which sits collecting dust on my shelves and I even requested this one from Netgalley before it was released. Still I hadn’t read any of his work.
Sometimes I think we know too much about authors, we have the ability to learn things about them that may color our impression of them to such an extent that we put off reading their books. I hadn’t felt that way about Harrison until he died last year and something someone said about him at that time put me off. For the life of me, I can’t remember what it was. Perhaps something along the lines of “man’s man.” Which, of course (although why “of course” I cannot say), meant he wrote books for men and; therefore, not for me. Ridiculous, I know, and I’m a little embarrassed about what that says about me.
But I’m bound and determined to go back and read the books I requested on Netgalley that I never got to when I had the chance before they were published. So I bought The River Swimmer. And now I am kicking myself for not picking up Harrison’s work sooner.
To be sure, the two novellas in this book are about men and the first of the novellas, The Land of Unlikeness, is about a 60-year-old man facing a kind of crisis of identity and direction. There’s nothing in either of the novellas to which I can especially relate (other than that both stories are set in the Midwest, which may have been all it took). It didn’t matter. Harrison’s writing sucked me in and his characters intrigued me. The man can absolutely make a scene come alive. Both novellas have elements of humor, which I enjoyed; but The River Swimmer is also brutal. Both served to bring emotion to the stories.
The Land of Unlikeness is an intimate story; we are mostly living in Clive’s head as he returns to his childhood home to care for his mother and, in the process, examine what has become of his life. As he works to rebuild his relationships with his family, Clive also comes to realize that home is enough. In The River Swimmer, Harrison takes us on the journey of a 17-year-old man child as his life takes him from his tight-knit family farm on an island to Europe. There is an element of fantasy in this story and an element of the old-fashioned tall tales but it comes down to be the story of one person trying to find his place in the world.
As further incentive for you to try Harrison, specifically for those of you who have seen and loved the movie Legends of the Fall, Harrison wrote the novella on which that movie is based. I’ll definitely be finding that other Harrison book on my shelves and then I need to get my hands on Legends of the Fall!